MatSE Study Abroad - Spain Edition!


Monica Paul

Hi! My name is Monica and I’m a junior in Materials Science and Engineering with a concentration in Metals and a minor in International Engineering with a focus in Spain. Ever since I was little, I always daydreamed about traveling to faraway places to meet new people, taste new foods, and see exciting new things. But I’ve lived in the Midwest all of my life and never got a chance to travel until very recently. And by very recently, I mean the spring semester of 2017, when I studied abroad at La Universidad Pontificia de Comillas in Madrid, Spain.


There were many factors that went into making my dream a reality. In fact, one of the reasons I chose to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was the International Programs in Engineering (or IPEng) office. Our university is well-connected with hundreds of universities across the globe where U of I students can take technical classes and earn credit for their engineering majors while also immersing themselves in a new language and culture.

Because some MatSE classes are only offered once a year, I had to plan ahead in order to study abroad and graduate in four years. Our head advisor, Dr. Laura Nagel, as well as the College of Engineering advisors and the lovely IPEng people were all very helpful in my efforts. I remember walking into Dr. Nagel’s office during freshman year, armed with my class requirements and spreadsheets, ready to convince her that I would do anything to make a semester abroad fit into my schedule. But she was so encouraging and enthusiastic! I would have to take a few extra classes during the spring of my freshman and junior years in order to stay on track with the MatSE curriculum, but I would get to study abroad!

The next challenge was to find a program in a Spanish-speaking country where I could also take the right technical classes. The IPEng program search was my best friend for doing this kind of research. It lists all information you could possibly want to know about a program and quickly helped me narrow my search. I ended up choosing the program at UPC in Madrid because I could take two required technical classes along with a Nanotechnology seminar that would count for a technical elective. On top of that, I could also take some really interesting culture-related classes as well as a Spanish language class. This was amazing because I could continue my technical education while also being able to immerse myself in the language and culture of Spain.

There were a lot of forms to fill out and work to be done in order to apply for the program, and then to prepare to actually travel abroad. I had to renew my passport and travel to Chicago to the Spanish Consulate General to get my student visa. Finding living accommodations and a host family was also a long process. But as the date of my flight to Madrid approached, I only got more and more excited.

Finally, I was packed and at the airport, and then I was on my way to a whole new continent. I actually got lucky enough to sit next to a woman on the plane who had studied abroad in Spain and was now returning to teach English in a Spanish elementary school. Her stories about all of the adventures she had taken just added to my excitement. The eight-hour flight seemed to be over in an instant.


My first day in Madrid was completely overwhelming. That was probably partially due to jetlag, since my flight left O’Hare at 4:30pm Central Time and arrived in Madrid at 8:00am local time (or 1:00am Central Time) and I had to go about an entire day when all my body really wanted to do was go to sleep. But I was filled with too much emotion and adrenaline for that to be an option. So I arrived at Adolfo Suarez Madrid Barajas Airport, being very enthusiastic about being able to understand the flight attendants and all of the signs and messages in Spanish. My host dad picked me up (which was fortunate, because all of my cash was still in American dollars, and I would have struggled trying to navigate the Metro with my 75+ lbs of luggage). We got home and settled, and he introduced me to Benita, a German exchange student who would also be living with us. She turned out to be one of my closest friends while I was abroad. I was able to walk down Gran Via for the first time with her and see the city where I would be living for the next five months. It was completely overwhelming, but I couldn’t wait to absorb everything.

Later in the evening, after dropping off my host siblings at swim practice, Constantino (my host dad), Evangelina (my host mom), Benita and I went to the supermarket, Mercadona. I had expected that food would be different in Spain, but I was definitely not prepared for what I saw. Coming from land-locked Minnesota, fresh seafood and fish (besides walleye) was basically unknown to me. I was very surprised to see whole fish, shrimp, and octopus laying out on ice just behind the produce section. The seafood smell was unfortunately pervasive. The other very obvious difference was the presence of an entire aisle of olive oil. And watching Constantino choose what seemed to be a 5-gallon jug to place in his cart. I also found out that it cost just over ten euros. Little did I know that I would be eating fish almost every day for the next five months.

It took me a while to realize this, but in general, Spanish cuisine is not strongly flavored. Sure, you have paella with its saffron and squid cooked in its own ink, but most Spanish dishes that my host family made were only seasoned with salt and olive oil. I didn’t consciously notice this until I went to Germany (Munich, specifically) to visit my dad in February. Eating all of the spicy German mustard, sauerkraut, various pickled things, and spiced sausages, I realized what my diet had been missing: spice. Now normally I’m not a huge fan of really spicy food, but absence really does make the heart grow fonder. So when my host mom came home with a bottle of Sriracha for taco night, I was really excited. On previous taco nights, we had used various types of salsa, but they were all fairly mild to me. But I was also used to a slightly spicier diet than my host siblings. But my host brothers noticed my eyes light up at the label on the bottle and curiously watched me vigorously adding it to my taco. Diego asked if it was really spicy, and I told him I thought it was, and that he should try some on a spoon before deciding to add any to his taco. He did, and as the Sriracha hit his tongue, his face reddened and he shook his head, deciding regular salsa was the way to go. Pablo, on the other hand, decided that he didn’t need to taste-test anything, and zealously squirted Sriracha all over his taco. After taking a very large bite, Pablo’s face turned to the color of Sriracha and his eyes began watering profusely. I think he could tell by my facial expression that I was concerned for his well-being, because he mumbled through his tears and mouth full of food, “This is really spicy but I like it!”

Besides eating traditional food, I got to enjoy many other favorite Spanish pastimes. One of the coolest experiences I had in Madrid was at “un partido de futbol”. Walking out of the Metro station, I could see that the once-open spaces were covered in excited fans, booths selling Real Madrid scarves, jerseys, and other assorted paraphernalia, and many more police than I had expected. To get to the cheap seats (yay for being a broke college student), we had to climb six flights of external stairs in a tower on one corner of the stadium, then steeper concrete stairs to actually reach our seats once inside. Despite being cheap, the high seats have arguably the best view; the entire pitch is visible without any need to crane our necks or turn our heads. This is also the section where all the exchange students and foreigners, as well as the opposing team’s fans generally congregate. But nevertheless, the atmosphere was intoxicating. The audience was absolutely glued to the game. The ninety-minute match felt like it had only lasted twenty minutes when it was all over. With every person elbow-to-elbow, the enthusiasm was contagious. Every missed shot was a heart-wrenching tragedy; every saved goal was a life-saving gasp; every score was a jubilant victory. I already loved soccer going into the game, but coming out of this match, I had a new passion for the game. Watching it on television anywhere, whether alone or surrounded by fans in a crowded bar, can’t hold a candle to experiencing it in person, especially in Spain.

Soccer matches aren’t the only busy places in Madrid though. One of my favorite activities is people-watching. And my favorite place to people-watch in Madrid was El Plaza del Sol – or just Sol – in the heart of the city. There are quite a few plazas in Madrid, but the most consistently crowded and busy is Sol. It’s located in the middle of most of the popular shops, restaurants, and clubs; a close walk from Gran Vía and Calle de la Princesa, the two main streets that run through the center of Madrid. The plaza itself is shaped somewhat like a crown, with the four main avenues through the pedestrian area to the north creating the points, and the street to the south creating a straight line for the bottom. It is always filled with different vendors, selling things like postcards and soccer club jerseys, as well as pastries or fruits and vegetables. There is almost always a protest or gathering of people for a political or social or humanitarian statement of some kind, or something like a blood drive happening on the plaza. And there are many street performers vying for the crowd’s attention. Some are more passive, like the fake statues or people who pretend to be floating in midair or holding some impossible position for long periods of time. And then there are the magicians and jugglers and musicians who call out to passers-by, asking for a moment of their time. Many people ignore them, going about their daily business. Sometimes I worry that these people have lost sight of the magic of a place like this; the sights and scents and sounds are no longer glamourous, but instead routine and maybe even a nuisance. But on the other hand, I see the tourists who are very clearly experiencing Sol for the first time, and it brings the magic back. There is so much to take in: the calls from the various people, whether directed at them or not, the smells of the different foods (and sometimes people, which can be a good or a bad thing), and the energetic bustle of the crowds. Sometimes I just sat on the edge of a fountain and eavesdropped on conversations that are happening around me. That was one of the best ways to practice listening to the Spanish accent (which is very different from the American/South American accents that I am used to hearing in the US) and learning new vocab words and slang. With my Spanish-English dictionary handy, and my journal to record the new words, I would sit and listen and always gather some new and interesting knowledge, as well as being enthralled by the energy and interest of El Plaza del Sol.

Besides exploring Madrid, some of my weekends were spent discovering the rest of Europe. In your late teens and early twenties is definitely the best time to do this, because “youth” in Europe is generally considered under the age of 25. That meant in our travels, we got to stay in youth hostels for discounted rates, and in many places were able to get cheaper or even free tickets with our student visas! I got to travel to so many places, including The Netherlands, France, Greece, Italy, England, Scotland, the Canary Islands, and many other cities within Spain. Some of the most important life lessons that I learned during the semester happened during these trips. Landing in an airport in a country where you don’t speak the native language and needing to find transportation to a hostel that was always a long way from the airport was intimidating. My patience, calmness, and problem-solving skills were tested many times during these travels, but I also learned so much about all of the places that I visited. Often, the most difficult travels lead to the most exciting adventures and fun stories. For example, the hostel that my friends and I stayed at in Milan was far outside of the city center, so we had a very long walk to do any fun sightseeing. But the man at the front desk of our hostel had lived in Milan his whole life and had a ton of great advice and many contacts. One of them was able to get us a table at a very exclusive restaurant that was booked for weeks! Another great story came out of a 45-minute taxi ride that a group of us had to take in Greece. We were staying at a hostel that was located on the exact opposite side of the island than the airport, so we travelled into town and found a taxi. We got really lucky, because our driver was something of a tour guide. He stopped the car a few times on the way to show us interesting sites, and we got to see where a fight scene from a James Bond movie was shot!


I think at this point it sounds like I just had fun for the whole semester and didn’t go to school at all, which is definitely not true. Classes weren’t the most glamorous part of my study abroad experience, but they were also absolutely incredible. My Spanish Culture professor and my Nanotechnology professor both went above and beyond to help out the exchange students. Part of the Nanotechnology class actually involved visiting a lab with a particle accelerator where my professor used to do research. He was able to get a colleague to give us a behind-the-scenes tour of all of the equipment and some of the projects that they are currently working on! The Spanish Culture class, on the other hand, was less technical but just as informative. My professor taught us about how the civil war and dictatorship in the history of Spain had impacted the country today, and how we could notice this in everyday life. She taught us some of the most important things that I learned in the classroom about Spanish people, their history and culture and art, and much more. Overall, that was definitely my favorite class.


Looking back, I grew a lot over that semester abroad. I learned a lot about the country of Spain and its people, the Spanish language, circuits and quantum physics, and a lot about myself as a person. When I returned from Spain, I was a much more self-confident, self-sufficient, and savvy person than when I left. I would encourage everyone to consider studying abroad during college. It was definitely the highlight so far!