Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad    

Study Abroad in Madrid: You May Never Want to Leave

Study Abroad in Madrid - The Prado
The great Prado museum in Madrid

The First Day

9 a.m. on a Monday in February. I finally made it. I am sitting in classroom 14.1.11 of the Humanidades building at the Universidad Carlos III in Getafe, Madrid. At least that’s what I thought it said on the door. I get up and check again. Yes, 14.1.11, as noted on the schedule I printed out. And yes, it is 9 a.m., which is also the start time listed on the print-out. But the classroom is empty. It is my first day in Getafe on the Middlebury UC3M program and I am already sure that I made a mistake.

Unsure of what to do, let alone where to ask for help—the building had seemed rather deserted when I entered—I decide to wait, at least for a couple of minutes. At about ten past, one other student enters. But he seems to be equally confused and nervous. Sitting in silence, we wait until another two students arrive. By twenty past, there are five of us and I have checked with one of the girls whether this is the right classroom. Si, si, she replies, leaving the room again to use the bathroom. Finally, the professor arrives, too.

He turns out to be young and energetic; perhaps I judged him too quickly due to his tardiness. Notepad in hand, I begin scribbling frantically as he outlines the subject matter, Historia y Teoría de los Medios de Comunicación y de los Géneros Periodísticos, which turns out to be completely different from the rough syllabus breakdown listed online (he even outright says so!). We get to how grades will be given: he gives us the option of (1) never showing up to class and just taking the exam at the end or (2) coming to class and writing a final paper. And that is it for the first class: Mañana más, that is, the rest tomorrow.

Adapting to the Spanish University System

The next days, weeks, and months, involve a learning process as I adapt to the Spanish university system. I had been told that Spain is all about sun, sangria and the famous siesta. Though it certainly was not warm enough to lounge around in a bikini, I had enjoyed sangria the night before. And it seemed that the siesta carried over into class time for Spanish students not just after lunch, but every day.

Since I had come to Madrid to study and for enjoyment, I decided on option two: to come to class. And though I certainly got into the routine of coming to class late since it would not start on time anyway, I am glad that I did in fact attend; while Spanish students were used to learning by themselves and from the book—there was also a whole underground network for passing notes that was clearly not seen as plagiarism by either the students or the professors. There was no way I could have passed the exam without going to class.

As a bonus, since only five of us ever showed up to class (and there were around 75 enrolled online!), the professor really got to focus on the three of us who were foreign exchange students. He was very friendly, repeating concepts whenever something was unclear. In my other four classes, the case was similar: the professors responded positively to the questions posed by study abroad students who demonstrated their interest by the mere fact that they had showed up in class.

It must be noted, however, that with the Plan Bolonia, the EU university reform, the European education system will progressively become more like the American, meaning that attendance will be required and class discussion essential. I went abroad in 2008 and Bolonia is set to commence in 2010, but such radical changes should take time to implement. Check with your study abroad advisor regarding this issue before you go.

Why Madrid and Middlebury?

Having visited Madrid on various family trips and high school Spanish language summer camps, I arrived in the city perhaps with a slight advantage over the other study abroad students. I knew that you have to be careful carrying your purse around on the Rastro market on a Sunday, while others could only have read about the issue in their guidebooks.

Nevertheless, I relied heavily on the advice of my study abroad advisor at Columbia. She had been great in advising me on study abroad options in Paris the previous summer, and I trusted her when she said that Middlebury/UCIIIM would be a good fit for my level of language proficiency (I had been studying Spanish since second grade).

Middlebury also offers two other programs in Madrid, both of which take advantage of the Sede Prim facilities:  a library, computer lab, wi-fi zone, cafeteria, and excellent onsite staff who will assist you with just about anything from housing to finding Real Madrid soccer game tickets.

For students less confident in Spanish, there is the Sede Prim program held exclusively in the Middlebury classrooms. All the classes are in Spanish, taught by Middlebury professors and consisting of the standard “American“syllabus and evaluation system. It also follows the American academic calendar.

The UCIIIM program, in contrast, is geared towards students with more advanced Spanish skills looking for immersion in the local university, which runs from September-February (fall semester) and February-June (spring semester).

Things to Keep in Mind When Studying with the UCIIIM Program

  • The campus location: UCIIIM was a 30-40 minute commute by train or bus for most students living in Madrid. It is well connected, however (the Cercanías train is great and now goes to Sol, the center of Madrid, as well). I chose to schedule all my classes in Getafe on only two days of the week to reduce the commute.
  • Look at the UCIIIM course offerings beforehand (online)—it may be that your major is not well represented; for example, most literature classes are offered in the fall, not the spring.
  • Choose classes that take advantage of Madrid and Spain. Take a class in which an excursion to Toledo is planned, or one in which your professor will take you to see a Flamenco show. My Historia del Teatro class required us to go to at least two theater performances. Go to the first class to find out about organized or independent trips.

Internships, Volunteering, and Working

If you are looking to immerse yourself in other ways, consider interning, volunteering or working. The staff at the Sede Prim will help you put together your resume and most likely, hook you up with an organization that meets your interests. One girl in my program worked at Sotheby’s and another at the Embassy of Jordan, for example. For students receiving credit, a standard internship replaced one class and involved 16 hours of work each week, in addition to a final paper. Though 16 hours a week is a lot of time, do not rule it out completely. I interned at an architecture firm in Madrid in high school and would not trade the experience.

Another option is volunteering. Again, you can rely on Middlebury for help or look online as well;  a simple Google search for “voluntariado Madrid“ or “ONG Madrid“ will do. When volunteering you can generally be more flexible with your schedule.

As an E.U. citizen, you may be able to teach private English lessons or baby sit. Be aware, however, that a U.S. student visa is not a work visa, so most Americans are not legally allowed to work without being sponsored by an employer.

If you are a U.S. citizen and you would like to practice your Spanish, sign up for an intercambio with a Spanish student; you meet each week, for an hour or so, and talk half an hour in Spanish and then half an hour in English. This is a great way find out about the best bars to go to on a Thursday night, for example. Intercambios are posted through the Middlebury weekly newsletters and may also be found online when searching for “Intercambio Madrid. “

Social Life and Activities

Since Spanish students often do not attend class or may already have their own group of friends to hang out with, you may find it difficult to meet people. But meeting people is in no way impossible. You can sign up with the Madrid Erasmus Student Network, which both organize events ranging from bar crawls to international potluck dinners to trips to Ibiza for locals as well as exchange students. With the City Card Madrid membership, you get discounts in various bars and clubs, and online, you can exchange info and photos in the forum.

Trips and Travel

Paris, London, Rome, Istanbul….it seemed that every weekend—or during the week for those of us who only had class two days a week—Middlebury students were trekking around the continent. Though I'm the first person to share my passion for travel, I recommend that you don’t just jet around but spend time exploring Madrid (and Spain), as well.

Studying abroad on a budget

For ways to study in Madrid on the cheap, check out MadridFree, a site in Spanish that updates free activities all around the city. The Prado Museum, for example, is free on some days. Also, look into getting a European Youth Card, which will give you a discounts for trains and certain cinemas. Then there’s the Día del Espectador (Spectators Day), a day each week in which theater and cinema tickets cost less.

Finally, in my case I took advantage of Middlebury events and trips. In addition to the Orientation, which involves a short introduction to Spanish culture and a trip to Toledo or the Escorial, there are free weekly film screenings. Additionally, we went on a heavily subsidized trip to the Málaga Film Festival (it was €40 for the train ride, including a night in a hotel and film tickets). During Semana Santa, Easter Break, we hiked part of the Camino de Santiago, which was for us a 5-day trip that should not be missed.


There are three basic options offered for housing:

  1. Homestay - living with a family, whether meals are included depends on your arrangements. This will definitely improve your Spanish and immerse you in the local culture. In my program, however, the students living in homestays felt that they had less freedom and ended up switching to a shared apartment.
  1. Residencia de estudiantes - basically, a student residence, perhaps corresponding most to what American students know as dorm housing. You might have a single, and some even offer meals.
  1. Shared apartment or studio apartment - the most common option. This allows you to have your own room, and in the case of a shared apartment, the kitchen and bathroom are common areas.

Usually, what happens is that students book a hostel (the Hostal Prim is good because it is right near the Sede) for the first week and then find an apartment with help from Middlebury or by looking on their own at the sites listed in the resource boxout below.

After the Program

After exams are done, what next? For most students, this means staying in Europe for a while in order to travel. It is a good idea to leave your return ticket open so that you can decide on a date once you have made your post-program plans. You could also intern or volunteer in the city for a while, though be aware that in August most offices are closed in Madrid.

And if you still cannot get enough of the city, you can always make plans to come back! That is precisely what I did. After graduation, I volunteered in Madrid as a translator and private English teacher. Connections you make during your year or semester abroad are bound to last.

Academic Study Abroad Programs in Madrid

Middlebury College
Middlebury’s undergraduate programs in Spain. On the website, you can read all about the curriculum, application procedures as well as evaluations from past participants.

Study abroad programs in Spain for various levels, from absolute beginners to advanced Spanish skills. The program in Madrid requires advanced language skills and also works with UCIIIM.

Related Topics
Study Abroad in Spain
Student Participant Reports

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