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What to Know About Studying Abroad in Madrid

Studying in Madrid - Palacio Real in Madrid
The Palacio Real in Madrid.

Breaking with every college plan I had previously imagined for myself, I decided at the end of my freshman year that, to get the most out my college experience, I really wanted to study abroad as a sophomore. At Stanford University, we have a remarkable study abroad program with 11 foreign campuses, including two in Spanish-speaking countries: one in Santiago, Chile and the other in Madrid, Spain. Wanting an opportunity to improve my Spanish, which was not getting as much use as I wanted in college, and drawn to the opportunity to live and travel in Europe, I chose to apply to the program at Madrid. Because Stanford is on the quarter system, ten weeks in Spain seemed too short of a time to fully appreciate the experience, so I ultimately chose to study abroad for both the winter and spring quarters of my sophomore year. With half of my experience now under my belt, I would like to provide some words of advice on how to approach your own time studying abroad in Madrid.

Getting To Madrid

The first thing to know is: if you want to study abroad in Europe, the opportunity is more accessible than you might think. Because of an agreement between the United States and the Schengen District (which is made up of almost every major country in Europe, including Germany, France and Italy—but not the United Kingdom), an American citizen can travel in Europe for up to 90 days without a visa. For a short study experience in a country like Spain, this makes preparation much easier; hypothetically, you could hop on plane to Madrid tomorrow for a 6-week course in Spanish.

However, don't be lured into a false sense of comfort; for anything more than those 90 days (and a longer stay is always better), a student visa is necessary, and can be a major hassle to acquire. When I first went through the process of obtaining my student visa, I did not expect to have to jump through so many hoops. Apart from the usual papers and forms I had to fill out (including a letter from my program, proof of international medical coverage and proof of my ability to support myself financially while overseas), the Spanish Consulate made me appear in person in order to process my application, and then again to pick it up. Fortunately for me, the San Francisco consulate was only a 45-minute drive, but a student living in Washington or Oregon would have to fly to San Francisco, requiring some serious planning. To complicate this situation, the consulate is only open for a few hours each morning, and visa pick-up is relegated to very specific times, meaning I had to set aside most of my day and plan very carefully each time I had a meeting there.

If I could give one piece of advice about applying for a student visa, it would be to make sure you allocate enough time to get through the entire process before you have to leave. I decided at the last moment that I wanted to study in Madrid for two quarters and by the time I got an appointment at the Spanish Consulate, I had just over a month before I was scheduled to leave for Spain. The consulate says it can take anywhere from three to six weeks to process a visa application, but they had no interest in helping me get mine as soon as possible. With no way to check on its progress, they just recommended I come back on the Friday before I left—five business weeks later—and hope that my visa was ready to be picked up. Fortunately, in the end, it was. But my bump up against Spanish bureaucracy (and with the cold treatment and leisurely work ethic, that's exactly what the consulate was) was nerve-wracking and stressful. Next time, I know to start preparing much earlier.

Arrival in Spain: Big Adjustments

When you arrive in Spain, you will inevitably be hit with a wave of jet lag and culture shock. Neither of these is optimal to hit the ground running with any sort of academic program, so do yourself a favor and don't arrive the day you are set to begin. Instead, give yourself at least of couple of days beforehand to adjust to your new life in Madrid.

Before I began my program, I spent ten days traveling around Spain with my family. It was in this time that I could finally begin to get a sense of the country, even though I had participated in a cultural orientation and completed the required reading for my program. I grew accustomed to many of the common Spanish customs and rituals, such as saying "vale" and eating dinner at 9:00 at night (which may be the hardest adjustment of all; I don't know how long it took me), as well as practiced my Spanish.

After my family returned home, I spent almost a week in Madrid alone before my program began. Everyday, I would choose a couple of the top sites to visit, and then use them as a starting point to explore other parts of the city. At times, it was hard and really lonely to be in that big city all by myself, but I ended up covering a lot of ground and stumbling across out-of-the-way sites I might never have otherwise seen. I didn't limit myself to traditional tourist sites either; part of my day was usually spent exploring restaurants, stores, and neighborhoods, and then pinpointing which ones I would want to return to later (I found a great movie theater that shows films in versiones originales this way).

So, before my program had even started, I knew my way around much of the central part of Madrid, and I was already starting to feel comfortable in the city. I probably stuck out like a sore thumb as a tourist to most of the Madrileños, but my perspective had already adjusted to thinking like a local, and I think that is more useful than anything else in terms of getting fully adjusted to a new place.

Alfonso XII in El Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid
At the monument to Alfonso XII in El Parque del Buen Retiro.

Overcoming the Language Barrier

Even if you are going to Madrid to study Spanish exclusively in a language program, it's best to have some competency with the language under your belt already. Though English is now taught at all Spanish schools, almost everybody seems really uncomfortable carrying on a conversation in English (with the exception of some people in the tourism industry). If you come to Spain with the ability to at the very least express your most basic ideas or needs in Spanish, it will lead to a lot less frustration from the outset.

If you have the chance, the best way to get more out of your experience in Madrid is to do a home-stay. Living with a Madrileño family, instead of fellow foreigners, forces you to practice your Spanish during at least part of the day. By conversing with native speakers, you are exposed to a more natural and advanced Spanish, which helps you to improve your vocabulary and grammar (sometimes with corrections on the part of your host family). As an added bonus, a home-stay allows you to get to know the city and the culture on a more intimate level. For example, almost every day, my host grandmother would cook incredible authentic Spanish food, such as croquetas or cocido, a delicious and underrated cuisine that I had not had much exposure to before. Though the idea can seem awkward at first, if you don't treat your stay as a business relationship, neither will they. I ate lunch and dinner with my host family every day; through long conversations, we became very close, and they opened up to me a lot about their lives.

My roommate and I celebrating our host mother's birthday
My roommate and I celebrating our host mother's birthday.

And though it may seem like an insurmountable challenge, try and speak only in Spanish for the time that you're in Madrid. My program has a Spanish-only rule in place, whereby we promised not to use English during our stay in Spain. Obviously, this was an impossible task; whether I was staying in contact with my family and the world back at home, using the Internet or just alone with my own thoughts, I was exposed to English throughout the day. But the rule was important in that it encouraged us to make sure we were practicing. As a result, the students in my program had a completely different mindset about how we approached the language, and we almost always spoke to each other in Spanish, which is something I never noticed about students in other programs. Even if you don't have a Spanish-only rule, set the goal for yourself and you'll notice how much more your language skills improve.

Explore Spain More Deeply

While studying abroad in Madrid, taking advantage of the close access to many other European countries may feel irresistible, but make sure you explore Spain. Though everybody has heard of Madrid and Barcelona—which of course are full of fascinating monuments and activities—there are so many other places throughout the country that are less known but just as beautiful and interesting places to visit. Getting a real sense of Spain and its history and culture will really enrich your study abroad experience.

Being in Madrid, Spain's biggest and most central city, provides the benefit of great access to planes, trains, and buses to take you almost anywhere in the country. Take the time to explore places you had only heard of or never knew about: the Moorish architecture in Andalucía, the Roman ruins and national parks of Extremadura, or the university in Salamanca, which is one of the oldest in the world.

Living in Madrid also allows for many easy day trips to the surrounding area. With just a half-hour train ride, you can visit cities such as Toledo, a former capital of Spain; Segovia, which has the alleged inspiration for the castle at Disneyland; and Alacalá de Henares, the childhood home of Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes. Of course, make sure you set aside at least a couple of weekends to explore the rich history and culture that Madrid offers as well; leaving without a visit to El Museo del Prado or El Parque del Buen Retiro would be a crime. 

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which has become a landmark of Spanish tourism
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which has become a landmark of Spanish tourism.

Managing Money

Make sure to get a job before you come to Madrid, because nothing blows your bank account faster than traveling in Europe. Save up as much money as you can, then be prepared to watch as it steadily dwindles (even traveling on the cheap, the costs for transportation, accommodations, eating and visiting the sites really add up). Just accept that this is a necessary part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and then enjoy yourself as much as possible.

Of course, spending money doesn't mean throwing it away. If you do your research, you can find plenty of ways to save yourself a couple of bucks here and there. Two suggestions I can offer right now: find out when places are free to visit and experience the nightlife for cheap. Especially in Madrid, many sites offer times when you don't have to pay to enter. Two of the most important art museums in Europe—the Prado and the Reina Sofía—are free for the last two hours every day and most of the weekend. Also, by steering clear of bars and discotecas geared towards tourists, you can save yourself the pain of some ridiculously high prices. At places frequented by Spaniards (or those in-the-know), you can usually buy a drink for just a few euros and get a plate of free tapas. Walking the streets, especially on a weeknight, you will inevitably get approached by plenty of people offering you free entrance, and maybe even a free drink, at their bar.

Culture Shock

Sometimes, the most obvious lessons are the ones that take a while to learn. While studying in Madrid, always keep in mind that you are a visitor to a foreign culture, and recognize that Spain is not a human museum exhibit, but a living, breathing country, just like back home. It is especially important to remember that while Catholicism is a vital part of the country's history and continues to be an important part of many people's lives.

One huge revelation for me was a misunderstanding that occurred at the Monasterio de la Virgen de Guadalupe. On a weekend trip with my program, we visited the monastery, which houses an important icon of the Virgin Mary. After our tour, we were invited by a priest to climb a tower to the altar and see the statue of the Virgin. What was lost in translation was that this is a significant pilgrimage, meant for Catholics to come and adore an icon whose discovery is considered a miracle.

To the surprise of the Catholic students in our group, almost all of us went up to see the Virgin, with the majority of us approaching it like a cultural encounter, instead of the important religious experience that it was. Afterwards, some of them even expressed to me their surprise that we had all chosen to climb the tower. Though I think they understood that we didn't mean offense, for them, it still felt like we were minimizing what was a really special moment for them. Afterwards, instead of backing away from exposing myself to Catholic-related tourist sites (which would mean missing half of what Spain has to offer), I have just made sure to educate myself better, especially about appropriate behavior, anytime I was visiting a place.

The patio of the monastery at Guadalupe, Spain
The patio of the monastery at Guadalupe.

For More Info

Madrid is Spain’s capital and its biggest city, with almost six million people living in the greater metropolitan area. Located right in the center of Spain, with a rich history and culture to explore, Madrid is a fascinating place to study abroad and an ideal hub from which to travel.

A program through your university is usually the easiest way to study abroad—you are in a foreign country with people you know and credits will be sure to transfer. Check with the study abroad office at your school to see if they have a campus in Madrid. If not, there are plenty of third-party companies that offer study programs in Madrid, including:

Check to see which one has an academic philosophy that matches your needs.

Traveling in Europe can get expensive, but hostelworld.com and hostelbookers.com are good resources for finding cheaper accommodations. Renfe, Spain’s national train company, has a hub in Madrid, and offers short-, middle- and long-distance trips throughout the country.

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