Sam Schwager


Stanford in Madrid, Autumn 2016-17
Major: Mathematical and Computational Science
Minor: International Relations
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: My parents came to visit the week of Thanksgiving, and we took this while I was showing them around one of my absolute favorite spots in Madrid: El Parque del Retiro.


Why did you choose to study abroad in Madrid? 

I started learning Spanish formally at 12 years old and was fortunate enough to participate in a month-long study abroad program in Buenos Aires when I was 16. Also, in addition to taking Spanish classes throughout high school, I performed a lot of volunteer work with primarily Spanish-speaking communities in my hometown Houston, Texas. Given the many positive experiences I’d had with Spanish, I was sure coming into Stanford that I wanted to study abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. I’d been to Madrid once before for a short period of time and loved the city’s energy, history, and people; so when it came time to decide where I would study abroad, Madrid just felt like the right choice.

What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Madrid? 

I knew the program was meant to be immersive, so I expected that meant I’d constantly be speaking Spanish within my homestay, in the classroom, and beyond. That turned out to be exactly the case, and my general comfort level with the language increased dramatically as a result.

As far as the classes themselves were concerned, I only had a few online reviews and anecdotes from students who had previously been in the program to go off of. In order to make my course units abroad count, I signed up for classes that satisfied WAYS requirements I hadn’t yet completed, hoping they’d turn out to be worthwhile. At Stanford, my classes are generally more oriented toward math or computer science, so I knew was in for a change. Nevertheless, I ended up absolutely loving the courses I took in Madrid, in large part due to the small class sizes and the incredibly knowledgeable and engaging professors who led them.

Finally, I didn’t know what to expect from the program administrators going in, but from the first day of the program it was clear how competent, kind, and genuinely concerned they all were with ensuring we all had the best possible abroad experiences. From organizing cultural outings to planning weekend trips to addressing our questions and concerns, the Madrid program staff members always made themselves completely available to us.

What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Madrid? 

As I mentioned before, the small class sizes and outstanding professors made studying in Madrid through BOSP an incredible academic experience. I was able to take courses in a wide range of subject areas including history, economics, and philosophy, and they were all taught in Spanish and tied back to Spanish culture. Also, most of my professors took advantage of Madrid’s cultural offerings, organizing field trips to places like Toledo and the Prado museum to complement what we were learning in class.

What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad? 

While in Madrid, I adapted to new circumstances in a way I never had before. Not only was I thrust into a completely new home with people I’d never met before, I was also taking classes in Spanish in subject areas with which I had little to no experience and trying to develop a sense for an unfamiliar city and its vast public transportation system. Nonetheless, the process of adapting to a completely new situation turned out to be a ton of fun, and I greatly appreciate the independence I developed throughout the experience. Most of all, I learned that I’m capable of being self-sufficient to an extent I wasn’t aware of before going abroad, a lesson I’ll carry with me well beyond my time at Stanford.

What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it? 

In retrospect, I did not do a great job of planning how I would handle the job search for the upcoming summer while in Madrid. Even though I went abroad in the fall, as it turned out, the deadlines for many of the positions I was interested in applying to fell right in the middle of my time in Madrid. As a result, I found myself spending a great deal of time preparing for interviews and carrying out many of them via Skype with a shoddy internet connection. I vividly remember one interview in particular that I performed while in Barcelona on the Bing Trip: unfortunately, the connection in my hotel room was so weak that my internet access cut completely in the middle of the interview, and, mortified, I had to run down to the noisy lobby of the hotel to reconnect and complete the interview in public. All in all, the job search process by no means ruined my time in Madrid; however, juggling arduous interviews and making the most of my time abroad proved challenging in certain instances, and if I could go back I would create a more firm plan of action for the job search and interview process before leaving for Madrid.

What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make? 

The biggest cultural adjustment I had to make was growing accustomed to using public transportation on a regular basis. My commute to school would take 45 minutes each way and involved taking a bus to the Príncipe Pío metro station from where I would subway up to the Instituto Internacional where our classes were held. Additionally, whenever I wanted to go anywhere in the city, both during the week and on weekends, I tried to leverage the public transport system as much as possible in order to avoid taxi expenses. I had never lived full time in a city with such a well-developed public transportation system, and once I got used to it, I felt as though I had the entire city at my fingertips. Better yet, the public transport card only cost 20 Euros per month, and BOSP reimbursed all of us for the expense, so learning to leverage the public transport system literally meant gaining access to the entire city for free.

What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Madrid? 

I loved Madrid’s constant energy. From the live music performances on the subways to the bustling streets lined with cafes, there was always something fun to do and something new to see. I lived in a more residential area to the northwest of the city’s center, but leveraging public transport made it easy to go anywhere I wanted day or night.

What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Madrid? 

The week before final exams we had our Bing dinner at a restaurant called Fismuler. The food was awesome and it was incredible seeing the program administrators, professors, and students all together in one place. Afterward, most of us students went to Joy, a club in the heart of the city right next to Sol, and got to celebrate our time abroad together one last time.

What 5 words would you use to describe your experience? 

Enlightening, fulfilling, formative, fun, lasting

Fun Questions:

What was your favorite food you had in Madrid? 

I was a huge ham fan. For my favorite ham dishes I guess I’d have to go with jamón ibérico and especially croquetas de jamón. Pretty much every restaurant you go to has a tapas selection, and these two almost always make the cut.

What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?  

I tried to keep most of my valuables at home but did bring my laptop. I brought it to school pretty much every day and remember many unnecessarily paranoid walks through crowded metro stations on my way to and from the Instituto awkwardly wearing my backpack frontward.

What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Madrid? 

We got to see a performance of La Clemenza di Tito at the Royal Opera through BOSP which I really enjoyed, but to be honest, I think my favorite music spot was the 5th floor of a club called Kapital. They were always playing the latest hits from the Spanish-speaking world by famous artists such as Shakira, Juan Magán, and Juanes, and they had awesome events for holidays and special occasions like Halloween.