The Study in Study Abroad

7 May

With finals around the corner what a better study break than to write a blog about the academic system in Madrid. Maybe a better word would be rant about the academic system. OK that seems a bit too harsh but to put it bluntly I miss Purdue’s classes. Being a high-caliber student in the US, it is very hard for me to come here and being limited by the language. First, for the first time in my life, I feel as if I do not have the same academic potential as I do in the US due to the language barrier. I always have to work hard to get my good grades, but I am confident that if I work hard enough, I can get these good grades because I have access to notes in English, a very clear textbook in English, PowerPoint’s and resources on Blackboard, an American professor who can answer my questions, and lots of English-speaking friends with whom I can study. I may have to do a bit of digging, but I can uncover the resources I need to do well. However, being in Madrid is a whole different story. I sit in class every day trying to understand my professor while taking notes, where I often miss the next point while struggling to decode the previous point. Furthermore, we do not have a specific textbook for class; instead we are given a bibliography of 15-20 books that pertain to our topic, so I do not have a specific resource to look up missed information. Also, PowerPoint’s and outlined notes are rare. When I am really confused and I try to talk to the professor or other students, the language barrier makes it difficult for both of us to understand each other. I always leave wondering if I correctly heard what they were telling me. I can relate this feeling to what I assume it would be like for a student who has a learning disability. I have so much more sympathy for these people now. It is not that they are not putting the effort into their classes; it is just that they simply cannot do well. It is a personal struggle to know that I appear unintelligent to my classmates and professors because of the language barrier. I just want to let them know that I really am smart! I understand now how many autistic children must feel. Many are absolutely brilliant, but are not able to succeed in school due to their inability to interact socially, write clearly, or effectively convey what they are trying to say. How degrading it feels to not be able to prove that you are actually a very intelligent person. This experience has been very valuable for me, as I plan on continuing my education to become an Occupational Therapist working with children with disabilities. My struggles in school in Spain, although not fun to deal with at the moment, really has allowed me to get an inside look at what it is like to have a disability. Even without the language barrier, there is still a good chance that I would still be unsatisfied with my education here in Spain. Even though I attend one of the best known Universities in Spain, one would not know the prestige of the school by the looks of the campus. The buildings are old, graffiti covers almost every wall and sign, and everything is run down. It is even worse in the building that our program is housed in. Classrooms are poorly lit, hardly any rooms have computers, and desk space is at a bare minimal. And don’t even get me started on their computer lab…it has computers that look like they are from the 90’s that are slow and there is not a printer to be found. You have to save your work on a flash drive and take it to the copying store to print your paper. I cannot tell you how many headaches this has caused me when trying to print something right before class and I end up being late because none of the copy machines work and then I have to stand in line, waiting and waiting, for each person to print their paper. Never again will I take for granted the ease of a simple “File. Print.” command.

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There is a reason behind this. Because the universities in Spain are public, the students get to go to school for free! Yup that’s right….no student loans or massive bills for the Spaniards. With that being said, I can understand why their facilities are not top quality. I suppose I would trade a dilapidated university for a free education. Americans takes so much more pride in their universities. Even when I visited the oldest university in all of Europe in Bologna, Italia, I was appalled at how ugly and poorly kept it was! However, because education is free in Spain, I find that many students do not take their education seriously. In my mythology class, the Spanish student chit-chat through the entire lecture, paying no respect to our professor. This is not only annoying, but it makes it much harder for me to hear her. And I had no idea that half of our class never came to class until we had an exam and suddenly there were all of these strange faces ready to be tested. I think Americans see college as a privilege. We understand that we are paying an arm and a leg to be sitting in that class, were as many Spaniards just see it as an obligation. If only they knew just how lucky they are.

Furthermore, the entire education systems seem to be taken a whole lot less seriously. My first realization of this was when we got our syllabi. All it had on it was the huge list of books that may be helpful and a brief outline of what we were going to cover. It was seriously lacking in comparison to what we receive at Purdue. No exam dates, no detailed readings or homework assignments, some without the professors email address, and most without grade breakdowns. As a student who likes to write down every exam and assignment for the entire semester in my Mortar Board during syllabi week, this was very hard for me to accept. Trust me, it stresses me when the professor announces out of nowhere that an exam is coming up. Or when I find out that we have to write a paper about a guest lecturer that we had in the first month of class. And then I got my next clue about the lack of seriousness. All but one of my professors show up to class 5, 10, or even 15 minutes late to class…every day! And don’t even ask how long it takes for them to hand back exams. And class participation is almost nonexistent.

Overall the education here is much less structured. I find it alarming when I ask important questions about an assignment or exam to the native Spanish students and their reply is, “I have no idea. Don’t worry”. WHAT? The exam is in a few days…how am I supposed to know what to do it you don’t even know what to do? At times it can be very frustrating, especially when most classes have only one or two exams to make up the entire grade. However, after three months I have come to accept this carefree schooling and am learning how to do well in school despite my disadvantage. I have gotten a tutor, I talk to my professor after class almost every day, and make great use of the internet to look up information that I missed or misunderstood in class. It seems to be working as I did well on my midterms and hope to keep it up as I push through another month and a half of school. Despite the struggles I have faced with this foreign university, it has helped me to take a more relaxed position on school. Back at Purdue, I was so much more uptight about my grades and studies. Not that that is a bad thing, but it has been good for me to learn to accept a less structured lifestyle. Surprise assignments no longer stress me out and I can type up long Spanish papers without much effort. I have learned to love the laid back environment and enjoy being able to go with the flow more easily. Most study abroad programs only have their students take classes with other Americans, so they do not have to deal with the strangeness and differences in the education system of their host country. However, I wouldn’t trade this experience for an easier program. If I am going to study in Spain, I want to study as the Spaniards do…un-buffered and real. It is much more rewarding to know that you came into a foreign class room and are succeeding. I may have to work a lot harder than my fellow classmates, but through my difficulties I gain a better insight of the Spanish culture and have the opportunity to meet more native Spanish students. It is a challenge, but one I am glad to endure. It will be interesting to see how the final month of school goes as crunch time is getting near. I just hope I don’t get too many surprise assignment thrown my way!

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2 Responses to “The Study in Study Abroad”

  1. Amy Shelley May 7, 2012 at 11:54 pm #

    What an interesting insight into another country’s higher education system. I didn’t realize that Spain’s universities are public. I can see how it is difficult keeping their campuses looking nice without having tuition to help with maintenance. You would be surprised at how many people I went to college with that blew off classes, or didn’t take them seriously. I think that has to do more with who you are and what you are trying to accomplish rather than whether you are paying for the class or not. Although that was in the back of my mind for sure.
    I have no doubt that you will get good grades in your courses. You are certainly doing all you can to study and learn ~ all in a foreign language to boot! Are you finding yourself to be more fluent as you have spent many months there now?

  2. madridmandi May 8, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    Thanks for such a detailed reply! I love having people´s feedback. My Spanish is coming along very nicely. It is so rewarding ot be able to have long conversations in a foreign language!

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