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Priya Shah

Universidad Complutense Madrid

I spent my Erasmus year abroad in the heart of Spain – Madrid. Choosing Madrid felt easy as it was right in the middle of Spain, accessible from all parts. I was also guaranteed to speak Castellano – Spanish as it is known outside of Spain, as opposed to dialects such as Catalan which are favoured in places such as Barcelona. Before leaving, I was excited beyond belief. I had never before ventured to the Spanish capital and knew very little about it. My main concern before I left was how to find somewhere to live. I started off looking at websites such as:

I didn’t feel comfortable committing to a place without first seeing it in person, so I decided to book myself into a hostel and started looking from there.

On arrival at Madrid Barajas, my tutor from the Tutor – Tandem scheme that the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) office was running came to the airport to pick me up. He was very helpful and dropped me off to my hostel (Albergue Juvenil de Madrid). From there, I looked at other websites such as www.easypiso.com in order to find a room to rent. Initially I found it very difficult, flat hunting required calling people up on the phone to book an appointment and then following directions to find the place itself - I often struggled to understand people especially over the phone. I basically threw myself in the deep end and had to pick up the language extremely quickly and also figure out my way around Madrid. The first few days required a lot of self motivation – some of the places I saw were truly awful and it was very easy to feel like you were getting nowhere. Luckily I eventually found somewhere to live and I had the pleasure of living with five Spaniards who were students from all over Spain.

I took the intensive language course before term started and I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone. Not only did I learn a lot, it was a great way to meet other Erasmus students who were in the same boat as you. The friends I made there were the ones that I kept in touch with throughout my time in Madrid, as well as after. It was a great way to see what others had gone through, any advice they could give and just a great way to feel more settled in a new place.

Once term started, there was another challenge to overcome. Whilst the people in the Erasmus office were in charge of making sure everything was taken care of on the administrative side of things, they often spoke very quickly despite being aware that we were all foreigners. They were also limited in how much information they could give out, and I generally found the system with regards to registering and deregistering from modules to be a little confusing and often found I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. At Universidad Complutense de Madrid, the Mathematics department offered a range of subjects. For each of those subjects there was often more than one teacher who taught the subject. What I didn’t realise was that each teacher taught the subject to their own specification and each teacher set their own exam. This meant that often one teacher’s exam was much more difficult and extensive than another teacher’s exam for the same subject. As I realised much later, the Spanish students mainly chose their courses not on the basis of the subjects but rather which teacher was teaching the course. For future students, I would recommend that you speak to the Spanish students and pick up a few tips on which teachers were popular.

Lectures

The style of teaching was also rather different to the UK. Instead of lecture style teaching, we were split into smaller classes of about 30 – 40 people per class. For each subject, it was usually in the same classroom, at the same hour nearly every day, which in my opinion made things feel a little monotonous at times – it felt a lot more like school, rather than university. There were theory classes and practical classes and often assignments were handed out which gave students a chance to gain bonus points for the final exam. It was rather frustrating, because keeping up with a class was always difficult and I often missed out on these opportunities to gain bonus points simply because I didn’t quite understand what was going on. The exams were different as well, and I found a little more informal and the general attitude towards them very different than in the UK. For example with the Probabilidad y Estadistica exam it consisted of a two hour paper on theory, followed by a two hour paper on practical examples. Within the first hour of the exam at least 10 students stood up and left. When I asked them about it later, they simply explained that they would just take the course again next year with another teacher and try and pass then. There were also some students who didn’t even turn up to the exam who had a similar explanation. It seemed that failing a subject or staying for an extra year was not considered to be as serious as it would be back in the UK.

Gradually I became more accustomed to the system and I felt that second semester on the whole went much better. I was particularly fond of the Iniciacion de la Ensenanza y Aprendizaje de las Matematicas course which looked at the teaching of Maths to students. It provided some insight into what sort of level of Maths students reach before coming to university; what areas they focus on at school; and also the general style of teaching used. I found it to be a very interactive class, where I was really able to contribute, and since I was much more comfortable with the language at that stage, I felt much more involved than I did in the first semester.

Living in Spain

With regards to the non academic sides of life in Madrid, I feel that living with Spanish people was a definite advantage when it came to picking up the language. The learning curve at the beginning was extremely steep, but as time went on, it seemed to come a lot more naturally and I could almost intuitively understand what was being said, even if I didn’t have all the vocabulary at hand. Madrid itself is a wonderful place to spend the year. It is not as big as other capital cities in the world and it is very well connected via public transport – which it means it is so easy to explore the city and get one from one place to another. It is rich in history and has a great social scene – museums, theatre, football, all easily accessible using the Metro. One major advantage that Madrid has is that unlike a lot of other Spanish cities, it is not overly touristy, and it also maintains a lot of the rich traditions. Markets for both food and non food items were one of my favourite parts of Madrid, as well as the great buzz that it has about the place.

During my time out there, I was able to travel to other regions in Spain as well, to see the differences that exist there, and see how the culture and traditions change in different parts of the country. It was definitely eye-opening, and a great way to understand how Spain has come to being what it is today. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn a great deal, and to be able to relate to the Spaniards more easily. Spain is a colourful nation with numerous carnivals and festivals going on everywhere – it was great fun and a real joy to be able to be a part of all that.

Apart from learning about Spanish culture, I found that throughout the year I also learnt a lot about the culture of other European nations by meeting other Erasmus students. It was very interesting noting the differences and how often a lot of people really did match up with the stereotype image of their nation! I was able to get some idea of what the education system must have been like in each country and how students’ experiences varied across the continent.

All in all, I think my year abroad was one of the best things I have ever done. I have made some extraordinary friends, improved my language skills and have come back with a deep appreciation that I have really learnt a huge amount both related to Maths and not related to Maths. Although initially difficult, if you challenge yourself, it was one of the best experiences. I would recommend this to anyone, it is definitely worth it.