Cheri Lanham (she/her) - Stanford in Madrid
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: This was taken in San Sebastián on my first and favorite of five weekend trips I took during the program. I was walking up to the top of this mountain at dusk with my Stanford traveling companions, taking in panoramic views of the ocean. It felt like being on top of the world! When we finally made it to the top, we could see the entire city below, alight at night, with the golden street lamps reflecting into the bay. Super memorable view shared with great company.
Questions and Answers with Cheri
Why did you choose to study abroad in Madrid?
Lots of reasons!
The major one is that I was drawn to the language pledge of the Madrid program, where all students commit to speaking entirely in Spanish for the duration of the program. I really wanted a seamless and immersive Spanish-speaking experience from the classroom to the host stay to being in the country itself. Since I’m majoring in Management Science & Engineering, I keep pretty busy just taking courses within my major and don’t typically have much room in my schedule for bulky 5-unit language classes. However, I still wanted to work towards my Spanish fluency in college, and the language pledge was my opportunity to really jump-start that goal and make significant progress in a short time.
I also was excited by the opportunity to study the culture and language of Spain specifically. I had studied Latin American Spanish throughout high school, but was generally unfamiliar with Spain, so I was eager to get to know a different side of the Spanish-speaking world. I’d also never been to Europe, and was eager to explore the continent (although I was so taken with Spain, that I ended up traveling almost entirely within the country during my free weekends!).
What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Madrid?
I was definitely nervous about the host stay program. I was worried that I would feel intrusive and uncomfortable in my host house, always like a guest, and that my host family might be impatient with my level of Spanish. My worries couldn’t have been more unfounded! Along with another Stanford student, I was placed with a single mom and she absolutely made my study abroad experience. She was warm and welcoming, and took special care to make sure we felt safe and comfortable in her home. She was respectful of our space and we each had our own room, a standard for the program, so I definitely felt like I had a quiet place to study and recharge after a long weekend of traveling. She was patient with our Spanish and taught us slang words -- my vocabulary definitely grew the most at home. She also cooked us different meals each night, so I was able to sample a wide variety of authentic Spanish cuisine right from the start. She would even pack us “picnics” for us to take on our weekend trips to make sure we didn’t go hungry. Not even a few days into the program, I already felt like I was at home with family.
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Madrid?
A big benefit of studying abroad for me was having the time to diversify my education and take courses outside of my major, such as art history, Spanish culture, and flamenco dance. At the same time, the classes are also a great way to get your Ways requirements completed and most are held entirely in Spanish, which helps you engage the language immersion portion of the program. But I think the greatest benefit of these classes is that you get to study in situ and learn through firsthand experience. For instance, in my course “Mujeres en Arte" we visited a museum in Madrid every week, such that we weren’t just learning about famous paintings in the classroom, but actually going to see them as well. By the end of the quarter, I knew all of the halls of the Prado by heart and had so many moments of awe admiring the art, guided by our witty professor. The whole experience really stays with you — there’s really no better way to learn.
What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?
I learned a lot about my resiliency and adaptiveness. I definitely learned that I can rely on myself to get through tough situations, which brings me to the next question…
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?
I was in Madrid during the outbreak of COVID-19, when Stanford announced that all students abroad should return home immediately. At the time, my original flight home had already been cancelled and the US was announcing travel lockdowns, meaning that if I couldn’t find a next-day flight home, I could be stranded abroad. To further my stress, I was unable to get in touch with my travel agency, as there were over 400 callers ahead of me in the queue.
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
There’s definitely a slower pace of life in Spain, especially compared with life on Stanford’s campus. Things aren’t as fast-paced and rushed as they often are here in the States. I had to get accustomed to taking three hour lunches in the city with friends or two hour dinners with my roommate and host mom, which could be challenging when I was in student-mode and stressed about getting homework done for class. But getting used to appreciating time, being present in the moment, and genuinely making time to enjoy the company of friends has been one of my most rewarding takeaways from Madrid.
What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Madrid?
Getting to live a more authentic Spanish lifestyle. Being in Spain for two months, I was able to experience living in the country, rather than just being a tourist in it. That meant that I could delight in the little moments of a Madrilean lifestyle, like commuting with the locals on the metro everyday or walking to the Instituto under a warm Mediterranean sky. Or stopping in at the pastelería for a sweet snack after class or practicing my Spanish in shops run by patient locals. And of course, one of my favorite parts of Spanish custom is the siesta -- I always enjoyed a good nap on a happy stomach after one of my host mom’s meals.
What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Madrid?
As a part of the mandatory Spanish culture and history course in the Madrid program, we took a trip to the Valle de los Caídos, a cathedral and monument to the dictator Franco that’s located just outside of the city. It was such an out-of-body experience to visit the monument after studying Franco’s regime in the classroom, and certainly was not a typical destination you’d visit as a tourist in Spain. Contrasted with the typical cathedral, the monument tunnels into a mountain, with stylized hooded angels that tower above you as you enter the basilica and gaze upwards at an unfinished rocky ceiling. I’ve never been in such a somber location — it’s a place I won’t soon forget.
What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?
Adventurous, intense, healing, crazy-cool, once-in-a-lifetime
What was your favorite food you had in Madrid?
My host mom’s vegetable crema, a thick soup that was warm, buttery, and rich. I still find myself craving it!
What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?
My Nikes. I did a ton of walking throughout the program because I found it to be the best way to experience Madrid and the other cities in Spain. Comfortable shoes were a must, especially during my trip to northern Spain — we had walked more than 30 miles in two days!
What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Madrid?
Flamenco music. We saw a flamenco show together as a cohort through BOSP and I now have such appreciation for how movement, such as the act of tapping one’s feet, can become music itself. I also took a flamenco dance class while abroad so understanding the musicality of this style was crucial to performing the physical dance steps. The class included not just listening to flamenco music, but learning to play elements of it too—we had a cajón and a palmas workshop as well. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve actually kept up with cajón playing at home!