By Colleen Boland
Originally posted on The Pie News Blog on 14th July 2017 (check link below for original)
International educators spend their lives working with international students, but it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be one. Colleen Boland of Young American Expat reflects on some of the things that have surprised her as an American studying in the UK and Spain.
When I decided to embark on higher education abroad, I have to admit that I was pretty unprepared for the variances in education by country, perhaps due to a largely American worldview and a bit too much presumption. I did study abroad in Italy during my undergraduate degree, but it was through my American university, and the classes were therefore adapted to the American experience. My first truly different learning experience was earning a master’s in London, before embarking on my currently underway doctorate in Spain.
For any perfectionist student, grading is the first thing that strikes you. In England, I discovered through my first grade that the sliding scale does not reach 100. It’s as if no one is perfect enough to reach that level of excellence. And it makes sense, if you are comparing yourself with past greats. High 70s were an achievement, and 80 practically unobtainable. Getting a grade in the 60s, thought it’s not even close to failing, is difficult to swallow at first.
Spain in general grades on a 1-10 scale – a prospect that terrifies me, as I enjoy the wiggle room of the 100 scale (the ability to get an 84 instead of an 8, for example). But unlike England, 10 is an achievable number, reserved for the most excellent students. Luckily, in my doctorate, classes are pass/fail, with the assumption that if you’ve made it this far in education, you are going to produce acceptable work – and if not, you should discontinue the effort.
Attire and etiquette
I found that the UK classes had teachers that were a bit more formally attired than in Spain, but still a bit less formal than my professors from the US. Student style was also relatively casual. Of course, students don’t show up in sweatpants to class like they may on some US college campuses, because no one wears sweatpants outside of the gym. In Spain, the professors dress even more casually, sometimes as reflection of what they study (in my case, sociology professors seem to have a more artistic side!). Jeans and leggings are not out of place among the educational staff in Spain. Older school professors still wear a collared shirt, as they hail from more conservative days.
Eating during lectures is an absolute no-no in either country, perhaps reflecting the fact that it is less customary to “eat on the go” as we sometimes do in the US. The Spanish in particular are very careful to sit down for their meals, and set aside time for it, and sometimes that may mean if there isn’t time, then no eating at all. Water bottles are allowed. The discussion format in both UK and Spain seems to be more lecture-based than we may engage in stateside. It’s notable that American students seem to have more training in presenting and speaking in front of large groups.
In Spain, a class never starts on time, or ends on time. There are some professors that will be annoyed if you get there later than them, though. The Brits of course are a bit more punctual, as they are reputed to be!
Administration is a bit more laborious, complicated and bureaucratic in both the UK and Spain than in the US. Both my universities, the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London and the Complutense University of Madrid, are public. Facilities are much more drab than you would find on an American campus that costs $40,000 a year. However, tuition for British students in the UK is up to £9,000 a year (it has nearly tripled in recent years, in the face of a lot of protest), and my doctorate in Spain is basically free.
And, because it’s public, the state documentation is very rigorous, and there are practically no exceptions to all of the mandatory forms and documentation that are required. In Spain, I have spent countless hours trying to get registered, literally waiting in line at the register for two hours one time, and having to go to banks to get taxes paid. It’s part of that bargain price!
I found that I gained a whole new appreciation for students in the United States who are not native English speakers, by having to study in a foreign language and communicate on an academic level. I also found that because of the European environment, students and professors are much more understanding of language issues and struggling with the native tongue.
In the UK it was a simple matter of setting the spellcheck to British English and double-checking for misspellings, but in Spain, of course, it has been more difficult. I have often encountered that people appreciate your effort, which I find very kind and encouraging. I have often had to ask fellow classmates to repeat something that was said, or for help understanding an assignment.
In sum, things are different, and it can throw you off. But the environment is usually welcoming, and the focus is on academia rather than the bells and whistles, which to a true lover of knowledge, can never be a bad thing!
Hi guys! Back again after way too long of a hiatus. I plan to correct that in the future! One of the things overwhelming my schedule this winter is wedding season, and let me tell you, in Spain we are different! I thought I’d highlight one of my favorites from just this past February, and also include some of the highlights from others I’ve been graciously invited to attend here! And on top of that, my own wedding and the fabulous Spanish guest list in attendance opened my eyes to some cultural differences I hadn't noticed before, even though I was already a seasoned Spanish wedding guest.
Our friends Almu and Nacho are obsessed with skiing so it only made sense they chose a winter wedding in a castle town north of Madrid, in the Province of Guadalajara! Siguenza is known for its Parador, a castle dating back to the 5th century that was remodeled by the Moors under their rule. In fact, the town has been ruled by Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Castilians!
Right after the run and the hostel´s huge breakfast spread, I went to get my hair done in a brief 30 minutes at the same place the bride (and probably everyone else, since the town is small!) got theirs done. The breakfast was important because Spanish weddings usually have the ceremony or the mass, followed by a long cocktail hour before dinner, so you can´t go into it on an empty stomach!
The wedding ceremony was Catholic and took place in the gorgeous Cathedral of Siguenza. The Bride had a spectacular winter cape that looked like something (classier) from the movie Frozen. In Spain, rather than bridesmaids and groomsmen, they have testigos (witnesses), usually only a couple, to sign that they bore witness to the union. However, Almu and Nacho are a fun and inclusive sort and they had quite a few testigos on each side. My husband Daniel and I were invited to be witnesses among several others, and Daniel had to rent coattails in order to be properly formal for the altar! I made sure to wear gloves and a wrap to also be properly dressed.
We got to take pictures with the bride and groom over the course of the cocktail, and finally they started ushering us into a great hall for dinner. Dinner has a first course, second course and dessert, all accompanied with generous amounts of wine, red or white alternating based on the dish. Dinner lasts a few hours, because Spaniards take time to enjoy each dish and of course, talk A LOT. Just like in America, the couple went from table to table greeting each of their guests, and the bride brought her bouquet to a couple at our table, giving them a little bit of a nudge to be the next ones engaged!
More to come, but in the meantime, practice your 12 hour straight drinking and eating skills if you are planning on attending a Spanish wedding!
Was flattering to have been asked to be a partner for #Generationstudyabroad. Looking forward to supporting the initiative, which is managed by IIE Global!
Hope you enjoy it!
When my friend and fellow expat Richie asked me to contribute to his awesome blog, I puzzled a bit over what to say at first. I have sometimes silently ridiculed expat forums (Americans –like myself-- complaining about a lack of peanut butter) but still secretly used them to get out of a jam (not to look for jam, most of Europe does have that). I started out an expat in London for about 3 years before moving to Madrid, where I have been for another 3 years and counting!
What I realized about expat resources is that they are essential, even if we are grown adults sometimes endlessly complaining about the (obvious) drawbacks of expat life that we brought upon ourselves. It’s like moving from one city to another in the US; we don’t have the same experience in the new city so we need to rely on other resources and a little extra support to keep up with the pack. And, just as anybody who moves has discovered, that little extra support sometimes comes in the form of relating to our past, more familiar experience.
When I struggled to land a job after finishing grad school in London, Richie was there as my sounding board. It just wasn’t a formalized and literal sounding board. And as I am currently changing jobs while finishing my last year of a doctorate program in Madrid, expat job forums are my lifeline. But I guess I shouldn’t spend the whole post confessing to my previous suspicion of expat culture; clearly I have finally realized it is an organic and necessary thing! Instead, I’ll go into why the expat life is for me, and what the expat life in Madrid is like.
I am lucky because I moved to Madrid with a best friend and Madrid native already lined up; I met Teresa at grad school in London. Sadly, I had never studied Spanish, so I was off to a rough start with my only friend speaking perfect English and a job conducted entirely in English. Since then, I’ve slowly progressed, with my doctoral program requiring Spanish and gradually expanding my friend group.
Which is the advantage of my situation—most of my friends are Spanish and not expat. Again, I have less of a need for expat support because my (newlywed!) husband Dani is an (involuntarily) captive audience if I need to rant about his city or culture (it helps that he is a Madrileño that studied high school in the US and can speak to me in an accent that is more American than my own, and understands my culture almost too perfectly). Basically, I’ve been warmly invited into the Spanish culture since day one, which (from reading expat forums), I have heard isn’t the norm. I owe a lot to Teresa. Most Spaniards I know have friends since diapers or at least high school (well Teresa does too, but has allowed me to join the diaper circle anyway), unlike my American friendships, most of which I have formed at the earliest in high school and usually later in college. It’s hard to break in not so much because of an unfriendliness thing, or because of the perpetual expat language barrier, but more because you’ve been missing out on inside jokes for 25 years.
And the Spanish culture that I sometimes huff and puff about? Well I can’t speak for all of Spain, because like the States it is vastly diverse (arguably more so given the longer history and different languages), but I can (conditionally) rave about young professional life in Madrid. Myth one busted: I haven’t witnessed Spanish laziness--they DO work hard—at least all the people I know do. Myth two confirmed: They party hard (and relax hard, if that’s a thing??), and I am still up for it even as I approach 30!
We work from 9 to 10 in the morning until 8 or later, Monday through Friday (some places Friday is half day), and if you live in the center that means you can sleep in until 8:30 am or so, unlike in early-morning America. Also unlike early morning-America, there’s not so much room at the end of the day to have a second life (club sports, extra-curricular CV enhancers), though for football games once or twice a week, we just bolt out of work as soon as possible to drink and snack until 11 or 12 anyway. I hit the gym in the morning, but others do it during lunch (which is longer here, at least an hour, sometimes two) or after work (yes, that means getting to dinner around 10 or 11).
Weekends are worth the work. Tapas and drinks with friends can start around midday and go on all day, lunches last for hours. You can always eat outside and in the sun for a steal compared to other countries (though our salaries are indeed much lower); beers can be as low as a buck and my beloved, and quite decent, glass of wine, around $1.50. And they always arrive with a delicious free snack (cured meats, cheese, olives, nuts), which I now feel so entitled to, becoming irate when I don’t receive it in other parts of Spain or when I visit home in the US. And same for dinner, that too lasts forever, alongside the summer sun.
The vacation also is a plus. We get about three weeks off in August (so yeah, backpack through Asia or adjoining Europe, you got time), one off at Christmas, and several three day weekends. Those three day weekends are like mini vacations every three to four weeks throughout the year. It means that partying hard can be taken to the coast, or if you want to stop drinking (for like a second) you can go hiking in the North, or explore the beautiful cities, histories and cuisines all throughout Spain.
It’s impossible to get into detail here; I’ll save it for the next post. But just a little teaser: Saturday, take a-less-than-one-hour drive out to the countryside with your friends and enjoy barbecue while “bullfighting” on a ranch in a small ring with an angry cow (i.e., just run from it and let the more experienced farmhand snuggle up to it afterwards) while the sun sets at a perfect non-humid, bug-free 75 degrees and you can laze by the pool with legendary Enrique Iglesias singing in the background and a mixed drink (or several) in hand, before taking your chartered bus back to Madrid. All for less than a night out in DC. Cheers to the expat life, I’ll try to remind myself, and you, of the drawbacks later.
-Colleen Boland @clizbo