Despite the fact that study abroad is full of new experiences and adventures that can make it seem like a mini vacation, it’s important to remember the study experience of studying abroad. With classes starting to pick up and deadlines approaching in several of them, I’ve started to realize how similar and different classes are in Spain compared to the university experience back in the States.
Through the two courses that I am taking this semester at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM), I’ve gotten a taste of what it feels like to be a university student in Madrid. One of the most interesting things that I think makes the Spanish college experience distinct from the American style is how structured their class schedules are based on what semester of school you’re in; from your first semester to your last, the department that your field of study corresponds to has planned out what courses a student ought to be taking and what semester they should be taking each course. This results in a classroom environment where the students are very familiar with each other because they’ve had most, if not all, of the same classes with each other throughout all of university. For example, in a fourth-year science elective that I’m currently enrolled in, us international students were the only students who did not know each other the first few day of classes, while the students who normally study at the UAM all seemed to know each other well and talked about their summers with each other.
This structured form of university is quite different from the liberal arts approach to education that Tufts and many other schools across the U.S. employ, where students are encouraged to study a variety of subjects across different departments, which helps students gain different perspectives on the issues that they’re studying and become a more well-rounded scholar. Whereas at Tufts we are encouraged to experiment and take courses we may have never thought about taking during our freshman year—I took a psychology course even as an International Relations major, for example—students here are given a list of introductory courses that they are expected to enroll in during their first semester that are directly related to what they plan on studying. This makes the idea of switching fields of study much more uncommon in Spain, as students seem to be required to follow the field they’ve chosen or risk having to start their entire degree plan over from Semester 1.
Another noteworthy fact with regards to my classes in Madrid is the perspective that these courses are taught from. In the political science and history courses that I am enrolled in, we are mostly learning history as it’s told in Europe and even then, there are times where there is a larger focus on how Spanish history fits in the bigger picture more specifically. It has been very interesting to experience being in a classroom where students or professors highlight important historical dates or figures that may not be as popular in America or elsewhere. Studying abroad has thus helped me put history in perspective, making me often think “according to who?” every time I hear a fact that stands out.
All in all, I have had a very positive experience thus far with my courses abroad. I think that it is important to acknowledge the differences between our style of university back home and that of the Spanish because it helps you realize what you like and don’t like about both styles of learning. Part of studying abroad is about trying new things and getting out of your comfort zone, and these classes have helped widen my cultural understanding of education in Spain.