Stanford in Madrid, Autumn and Winter 2013-14
College year while abroad: Junior
Why did you choose to study abroad in Madrid?
Although I also considered programs in Oxford and Santiago, Madrid ultimately stood out to me because of its rigorous Spanish language requirement. After studying Spanish in classrooms for six years, I felt that my learning had plateaued, and a full-immersion program would be the next step towards fluency. Although I’d visited Europe in the past, I’d never been to Spain, and I was eager to experience European culture and history from a new perspective.
What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Madrid?
I had absolutely no idea what to expect going in. I’d never been to Spain, never been abroad for more than three weeks, and never lived with a host family. I was convinced that everyone else in the program would be way more prepared than I was. As soon as I arrived in Madrid, I realized that a) everyone else was just as nervous and disoriented as I was and b) the program staff and host families had created an amazing support network to make us feel welcome and to ease the transition. The friendliness, patience and calm capability of everyone involved in the program in Madrid – from the staff to the host families to the professors - vastly exceeded my expectations and provided an enormous sense of relief, especially in the chaotic first few weeks.
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Madrid?
The level of comfort with the Spanish language is obviously a huge one – by the end of my first quarter, I could understand complex lectures, complete technical readings, and write long academic research essays all in Spanish. I took numerous memorable classes while in Madrid, including a course on the eight-hundred year history of Islam in Spain, a Spanish theater class in which we read one play each week and went to four plays in theaters, and a class at the Prado (one of the top art museums in Europe) studying depictions of women in art. Being able to discuss philosophy, literature, religion and art history in another language not only feels really cool, but also adds a whole new dimension to the study of all of these disciplines. Since being back in the US, I now feel way more culturally literate on everything from European art to European politics. My time abroad widened my perspectives in just about every way imaginable.
What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?
Studying abroad was paradoxically one of the most empowering and also humbling experiences of my life. From the very beginning of my time in Madrid, I recognized that it was up to me to make the most of the next six months. I learned to push myself to take initiative in planning the trips that interested me, and to find people who were looking for the same adventures. I got more comfortable spending time alone, because this allowed me to wander the city and visit museums on my own schedule. I came out of the program with a much stronger idea of what feeds me, and exactly how possible it is to make it all happen.
Being abroad was also deeply humbling, since I was often frustrated with my inability to communicate everything that I thought and felt. Things I took for granted in the US – the use of sarcasm, irony, humor, the ability to share complex thoughts – all of that was way beyond my reach, at least at first. I found myself secretly excited when I could catch my 4-year-old host brother making Spanish verb conjugation mistakes; usually his language abilities far exceeded mine. It was an excellent experience in getting comfortable with uncertainty, recognizing that I might not always have all of the answers, and that the world won’t end if I mess up.
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?
I think that my most difficult time while abroad was a few weeks into the program, when I was beginning to get settled in but still felt like there was a long way to go before I felt comfortable in this new place and culture. The best way to describe those first weeks is utterly overwhelming. I’ve always been very verbal, and so the fact that I couldn’t understand everything that was going on around me made me panic. I didn’t feel like there was anywhere I could rest, because all of my classes were in Spanish, I could only converse with my host family in Spanish and even my conversations with Stanford classmates had to be in Spanish. In retrospect, I think this was the critical point for me actually committing to learning the language, because I realized that I was finally in a situation where I could not survive, mentally and emotionally, without improving my abilities. Eventually this feeling passed as my Spanish learning curve grew steeper and steeper and I began to feel more settled, but at the time I found it very helpful to discuss my struggles with other students in the program, many of whom were going through exactly the same challenges. Throwing myself into this full-immersion program in a place I’d never been was absolutely one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life, but I came out of it more confident than ever that I can rise to any challenge.
How was your experience living with local families?
My host family was hands-down one of the best parts of the program for me. I lived with a young family and had two host brothers, ages 4 and 7. I played Scrabble in Spanish with my host parents, went to my host brother’s soccer games, taught all of their friends how to properly wrap burritos, and went to theater festivals with my host mom. The best part of my day would frequently be the dinners that I shared with the whole family in which my brothers would ask complicated questions about animal life cycles, and my host parents and I would compare Spanish and American politics. Although I had the option to change families for my second quarter, I chose to stay with the same one because I had formed such a close relationship with them. My actual parents visited me over Christmas break, so I had the unique opportunity to have dinner with both of my families at once and translate their conversations. This was the first time I realized that my host parents actually could speak some English, because we had only ever communicated in Spanish. I still WhatsApp with my host parents, and during this year’s World Cup my host dad and I had a running commentary about each game.
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
I wouldn’t say that there was one big cultural adjustment that I made, more like many small ones. I exercised less than I do at home, because it is rare in Madrid to see a woman running. At Stanford I dress very casually in athletic clothes, whereas in Spain I had to take more care with my appearance and dress more formally. The kissing on both cheeks thing was something to get used to as well – I was always afraid I would miss and accidentally kiss my host grandpa or someone on the lips. Meal times were another big change. I was the only person in my family that ate breakfast, but even then I would be starving by the time lunch rolled around at 1:30. My family ate dinner at 8:30, but that was early by Spanish standards. Many of my friends from the program didn’t eat until close to midnight. I learned a lot about my own ability to adapt and also that some things – like running - are so central to who I am that I can’t give them up just to avoid getting weird looks on the street.
What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Madrid?
It’s very simple, but I loved the routine of coming home every day from school. I would walk out of the metro into my barrio at around five or six, and pass the same woman selling melons out of the back of her van, and the accordion player, and the flower seller, and all of the kids in their uniforms walking home from school with their parents. Sometimes I would stop at the panadería on the corner and buy a hot croissant for my walk home. When I arrived at the apartment, I would be greeted by my four-year-old host brother showing me a picture of whatever dinosaur he was coloring that day, and then I would tell my host dad about my classes before playing a game or two of FIFA with my older host brother. The routine of living in a barrio of Madrid where I was the only Americana gave me a daily experience that was unlike anything a tourist would ever see.
What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Madrid?
One of my most memorable experiences in Spain took place on our Bing Trip to San Sebastian in the fall. San Sebastian is a surf town on the northern coast of Spain, an amazing mixture of Santa-Cruz-meets-Basque-Country. On our first night, we all went out for pintxos, which are the Basque version of tapas. They come on slices of baguette, and you can just grab them straight off the bar like a buffet, and then pay at the end by counting up all the toothpicks left on your plate. This was basically my dream eating experience. Then we stumbled upon the main plaza, where about forty Basques of various ages were all assembled in a circle doing traditional dances to a live band. We stood on the outside watching for a while, and then they invited us to enter. We looked at each other and then joined the circle, proceeding to mostly flail around to the commands, which were all in Euskara (the Basque language). Dancing like crazy with a bunch of strangers in an ancient square in the far north of Spain was an experience that I’ll never ever forget.
What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?
Challenging, empowering, epic, awe-inspiring, fenomenal.
What advice would you give to someone who was considering studying abroad in Madrid?
Consider spending two quarters abroad if your schedule allows. Knowing that I would have six months in Madrid allowed me to relax and fully enjoy every experience rather than rushing to cram everything into ten weeks. Also be open to making mistakes. A lot of times Stanford students (including myself) tend to be perfectionists, but, at least at first, every other word that comes out of your mouth may somehow be wrong. It’s tempting to try to hang back and avoid making errors, but some of the best advice I got while I was abroad was: “Your goal should be to make 100 mistakes a day.” I probably came close to literally following this, especially in the beginning, but generally I think of this as a reminder to continuously challenge yourself with difficult words and conversations, since this is really the only way to learn.
If you had to do it all over again what would you do differently?
I wish I had explored Madrid more fully and tried to seek out more concerts and events. At some points during my time, I would make it a goal to visit one new museum or do some adventure within the city each week, but frequently that slipped because I would be exhausted from my weekend trips or need to catch up on schoolwork. I do feel like I missed out on some of what Madrid had to offer because I was so busy visiting other parts of Spain and Europe, and I wish I had maintained more of a balance.
How has the experienced changed or enhanced your future academic and career goals?
One of the first things I did upon returning to campus last spring was declare a minor in Spanish. I’d gotten hooked on Spanish literature while abroad and I wanted to commit myself to keeping up my language skills. My time in Spain also made me more confident and stoked on traveling in Spanish-speaking countries, and I am now considering teaching English in Latin America at some point after graduation. I thought that studying abroad might satisfy my desire to travel the world, but instead the experience only intensified my desire for adventure.
What was your favorite food you had in Madrid?
Churros y chocolate at San Ginés after late nights. Croquetas anytime (but especially at El Tigre). My host mom’s gazpacho and tortilla.
What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?
Peanut butter – super hard to find in Spain! More practically, a Lonely Planet guide to Madrid and a giant one for the whole country.
What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Madrid?
“Me Encanta (Me Da Igual)” by Las Nancys Rubias. I heard this Spanish cover of Icona Pop’s “I Love It (I Don’t Care)” one night and my life was never the same. Check out the music video if you’re into guys in heavy eye makeup throwing glasses of milk at each other…
Every Stanford undergraduate should give serious consideration to studying overseas.
Regardless of the academic path you choose, you will be enriched by time spent in another country. Achieving cultural literacy and gaining substantive understanding of other perspectives in the world will deepen your awareness of yourself, your educational goals, and your own society. Nearly one-half of each graduating class studies abroad through one of Stanford's overseas programs.
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