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Study Abroad in Madrid: You May Not 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 sit 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., the start time listed on the printout. But the classroom is empty. It is my first day in Getafe on the Middlebury UC3M program, and I am already sure I made a mistake.

Unsure of what to do, let alone where to ask for help — the building had seemed relatively deserted when I entered — I decided to wait at least a few 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, five of us and I had checked with one of the girls whether this was 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 scrawling 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 learn the grading system: 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, the rest tomorrow.

Adapting to the Spanish University System

The following days, weeks, and months involve learning as I adapt to the Spanish university system. I naively assumed that Spain was about the sun, sangria, and the famous siesta. Though it was not warm enough to lounge around in a bikini, I had enjoyed sangria the night before. The siesta was 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 go 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 I did attend. At the same time, Spanish students were used to learning on their own and from books — there was also a whole underground network for passing notes that was 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.

Paris, London, Rome, Istanbul... it seemed that Middlebury students were trekking around the continent every weekend — or during the week for those of us who only had class two days a week. Though I'm the first person to share my passion for travel, I recommend you explore Madrid (and Spain).

Why Madrid and Middlebury?

Having visited Madrid on various family trips and high school Spanish language summer camps, I arrived in the city with a slight advantage over the other students studying abroad. I knew you must be careful carrying your purse 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 advised me on study abroad options in Paris the previous summer. I trusted her when she said Middlebury/UCIIIM would fit my language proficiency well (I had been studying Spanish since second grade).

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

The UCIIIM program, in contrast, is geared toward 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 excellent and now goes to Sol, the center of Madrid, as well). I scheduled all my classes in Getafe twice weekly 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 part of the plan or one in which your professor will take you to see a Flamenco show. My Historia del Teatro class required us to attend at least two theater performances. Go to the first class to find out about organized or independent trips.

Internships, Volunteering, and Working

If you want to immerse yourself in other ways, consider interning, volunteering, or working. The staff at the Sede Prim will help you assemble your resume and, most likely, hook you up with an organization that meets your interests. For example, one girl in my program worked at Sotheby's and another at the Embassy of Jordan. For students receiving credit, a standard internship replaced one class and involved 16 hours of work each week and 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 EU citizen, you can teach private English lessons or babysit. Be aware, however, that a US student visa is not a work visa, so most Americans are only legally allowed to work if an employer sponsors them.

If you are a US citizen and want to practice your Spanish, sign up for an intercambio with a Spanish student; you meet each week for an hour or so and talk for half an hour in Spanish and then half an hour in English. Intercambios are a great way to find out about the best bars to go to on a Thursday night, for example. Intercambios are posted through the Middlebury weekly newsletters, and you can find them online when searching for "Intercambio Madrid."

Social Life and Activities

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

Trips and Travel

Paris, London, Rome, Istanbul... it seemed that Middlebury students were trekking around the continent every weekend — or during the week for those of us who only had class two days a week. Though I'm the first person to share my passion for travel, I recommend you explore Madrid (and Spain).

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, a recommended 5-day trip.


There are three basic options offered for housing:

  1. Homestay involve living with a family, with meals included, depending on your arrangements. Homestays will improve your Spanish and immerse you in the local culture. In my program, however, the students living in homestays felt they had less freedom and switched to a shared apartment.
  1. Residencia de estudiantes is a student residence, corresponding to what American students know as dorm housing. You might get a single. Some even offer meals.
  1. Shared apartment or studio apartment is the most common option. You can often have a private 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 the exams are over, what next? For most students, this means staying in Europe for a while to travel. Leave your return ticket open so 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 plan to return! That is what I did. After graduation, I volunteered as a translator and private English teacher in Madrid. 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.

Studying in Spain (Directly)
You can study and intern abroad in Spain directly and there is an agency that will help you do so at a far lesser cost to you. There are well over 3,000 study programs available at over 150 universities in Spain according an agency that will help you enroll directly.

 More Articles on Study Abroad in Spain
Living in Spain as a student What to Know About Studying Abroad in Madrid
Living, studying, and working in Spain as a student The Who What Where Why When of Living Abroad in Spain: A Student Guide
 Related Topics
Study Abroad in Spain
Student Participant Stories

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