Your semester in Spain: Overview

Introduction to Spain: Lengua, Historia y Cultura de España in Santiago de Compostela (August) and Granada (January)

The VWM fall term begins in August in Santiago de Compostela, the spring term in January in Granada. Students enroll in a 12-day (approximately) course, Lengua, Historia y Cultura de España, designed to prepare them for their semester or year of living and studying in Spain. These cities (in Galicia and Andalucía, respectively) were chosen for their exceptional historical, artistic, and cultural importance, for their renowned beauty, and for the picture of Spain’s (natural and cultural) diversity they offer VWM program participants. A team of local student advisors (monitores) helps VWM participants make the most of their first on-site orientation in these chosen locations. A program of cultural activities is designed to help students maximize their learning experience in cities that are living, material expressions of Spanish culture in all its brilliance and diversity. The program staff runs information sessions aimed at preparing students fully for their homestay in Madrid and for their course registration at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M).

The orientation session bears 2 of the 26 credits students are expected to earn during the semester and are graded. As indicated on the “VWM Pledge,” students are expected to participate fully in all activities organized by the program.

Orientation in Madrid: Homestays and Registration for Classes

Before departure from the US program directors meet with students individually on-line to review the four curricular options and petition for any courses at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM) students might want to take. Study plans are reviewed carefully and finetuned with the director during the orientation sessions in Santiago and Granadas. During the first week in Madrid students attend orientation sessions run by the program staff as well as by the Universidad Carlos III. Orientation activities have both a curricular and a social component. They are designed to help students adapt to the Spanish university system (university structures, teaching styles, and learning strategies). They are also aimed at helping VWM participants adjust to life in Madrid, inside and outside of their homestays.

During the Madrid orientation students register for courses at the UC3M and receive their UC3M ID card. They also are registered at the UCM. The program Director and Assistant Director provide careful guidance and are supported by a team of UC3M peer guides or monitores. These regular UC3M students participate actively in various orientation activities, especially orientation to Carlos III courses, and participate in program activities (including excursions) throughout the semester.

As indicated in the “Pledge,” VWM students are expected to participate fully in all aspects of the orientation session, including activities led by monitores.

Classes and Finals

Classes typically start a week after arrival in Madrid. During the orientation session students are expected to review the UC3M and UCM academic calendars to determine the dates for final exams and decide whether they will need to negotiate a change in schedule of the exam or change their return date. Final exams are generally scheduled for regular UC3M courses in mid-December and the second half of May although they can sometimes spill over into January or June. Bear in mind that, while professors at both of our host universities in the past have for the most part been prepared to accommodate well-justified and -documented changes (a compelling commitment that is impossible to work around), not all do and the program has no authority to force that change. Over the last few years we have noticed increasing reluctance, no doubt because many professors have had to deal with cheating. As at Vassar or Wesleyan, university regulations tend to back professors. Also bear in mind that if a professor is unwilling to change a final exam date, even a long-distance solution or an alternative form of final evaluation (such as a paper for an exam) might not be possible either. Finally, as a rule professors will require a valid justification to make such a change, which is generally understood to be an academic or professional commitment that cannot be changed and must be documented. A desire to leave early to travel would not count and personal commitments (to family or friends) that are not extremely compelling (e.g., certified serious illness) would also not count. Again, this would be no different at Vassar or Wesleyan. This is why it is important to have this conversation with professors before the end of the registration period. Final exam schedules tend to be published months in advance of the beginning of the term.    

During orientation students will also receive the program calendar, listing the dates for the excursions and cultural activities in which they are expected to participate.

VWM participants will adhere fully to the academic calendar and attend all classes. Because program activities (especially excursions) are considered an integral part of the academic experience, students are expected not to make travel plans of any kind before receiving the UC3M and program calendars.

Disabilities Accommodations

Please see the detailed instructions for disabilities accommodations, including a crucial self-registration step, at the corresponding sublink under Academics.

A Word about Key Differences between College Life in Spain and the US

It is important to understand the difference between a well-funded private American liberal arts college and a less well-funded public university anywhere and especially in Europe. You will find that most things work as well or better in Spain than in the US, but that does not generally apply to the comparison between a spartan public university in Spain and a well-funded private liberal arts college in the US. At the same time you will find there are opportunities in those differences, including the advantages of scale (there is more of everything on offer at universities anywhere from 5 to 40 times the size of Vassar and Wesleyan) and of different ways of learning that might in fact prepare you better for life after college. The “small, private, liberal arts college” is a uniquely American phenomenon. Spanish students, like most European students outside of the UK, rarely “go away to college.” Instead they continue as a rule to live with their families. Commuting to class is normal in Spain and elsewhere in continental Europe and it can take as long as an hour. The image of students reading (the newspaper, a novel, class notes) on the morning subway routes is common, something made possible by the excellent public transportation system in Madrid. As for the academic differences, Spanish students are admitted even before they arrive on campus to a specific facultad (department) and major. This explains why course offerings are structured by department major, by curso (academic year, not course), and even sometimes by grupo (the cohort of fellow majors scheduled for the same lectures and discussion sections throughout their careers). Throughout their undergraduate program they follow a more or less fixed program of instruction, in a mandated sequence, with few “electives,” often with the same cohort of peers within their major. This is the key reason there is no need for early pre-registration. They also tend to make friends within this cohort and often maintain these lasting friendships all their lives, which sometimes explains why program students can have trouble breaking into social circles at universities in Spain if they study abroad only for a term. On the other hand, joining a grupo early on means opportunities to collaborate on projects and learn from Spanish students about how to best prepare for big final exams or final papers and projects. Given that Spanish manners as a rule are more formal than American manners, program students are sometimes taken aback by the informality of some Spanish students in many lecture courses, sometimes even talking or texting while a professor is speaking. Finally, university courses in Spain are, as a rule, less intense than such courses at an American private liberal arts college, especially in the first month of the semester. One reason for this is that program students are required to take 24 course credits per semester whereas Spanish students must take 30 course credits. Since Spanish students must take in effect the American equivalent of 5 courses per term, each course must, not surprisingly, be less intensive than you are used to at home. This should not mislead you into slacking off: final exams or projects can be very demanding and certainly carry a lot more weight than they would in the US. This requires different learning strategies as spelled out in other sublinks under Academics, among them joining a study group with Spanish students early on in each of your courses and taking the initiative and seeking out professors’ advice for what to read from the course bibliography and how best to prepare for major projects or exams.