My Top 5 Photos on the Student Exchange Program

As she shares her top 5 photos from the Student Exchange Program, Michaela Santalucia reflects on her time abroad for a semester in Madrid, Spain. As a first time international traveler, she also shared her insights and benefits of taking the leap of faith to study abroad.

In order to highlight my experiences in a more fun way, I decided to do a little photo journal of my favorite photos, and reflect on the experience I had and where I was!

This photo of me was taken at the Real Jardín Botánico in the heart of Madrid. Some other exchange students and I happened upon the Botanical Gardens between lunch at one of our favorite places (Tinto y Tapas) and a trip to the museums in Madrid. Since the botanical gardens are so large (8 hectares!!), we never made it to the museum but we did see 3 very friendly cats, thousands of plants, and a cool art exhibit! Although this seems like a photo that could be taken anywhere in the world, this experience was extremely important to me because I felt like a true Madrileño (a native inhabitant of Madrid), because I found something completely by myself without advising a travel site and enjoyed my day without regard to time (in true Spanish fashion). This experience was a true turning point of my trip because I realized that I was no longer a tourist and was actually living in Madrid.

This photo was taken of me in Morocco! Only a 10 hour bus ride and a one hour ferry ride away from Madrid, this trip was one of my favorites because the culture was incredibly different than anywhere I had seen in Europe or North America, the food was incredible, Morocco had my favorite architecture, and the company I traveled with was extremely punctual and handled the incoming hurricane well and got us all out safely.

During this trip, I was lucky enough to visit three separate cities, get tours (by locals) in all of them, and stayed in a nice hotel. It was incredibly cool to visit a predominantly Muslim country and see how Morocco has been influenced by French influence. Most places I have visited in Europe or the U.S. do not operate under an incredibly religious government, and generally, Muslims are a minority in the places I have visited. Being exposed to a new style of government, a new way of life and a completely different architectural style had a big impact on my opinions of the area. Although I did not pick up any Arabic, I felt like I learned a little bit more about the world.

I took this photo in a small town about an hour train ride outside of Madrid called Siguenza (which conveniently shares the name of my favorite Spanish bottled water brand). My Professor mentioned that it was an incredible town with rich history, so I Googled it and convinced all my friends to go on a day trip with me that weekend! It just happened that weekend there was a special medieval-themed train you could take to the city to get the “full experience”.

On the train there were magicians, jugglers, and performers all presenting themselves in a traditional medieval fashion as they performed in the various train cars. Upon arriving in the city we were given a guided tour of the city (included in the ticket price), and on that tour, I found this adorable staircase. After the tour, we were free to wander around the city, get lunch, and meet back up later for an optional paid cathedral tour. This experience was one of my favorites because it was cheap, could be done in one day, and how often do you get to enjoy medieval magic shows as a college student? Never.

The university I attended in Madrid, Universidad Pontificia Comillas (Comillas Pontifical University) was a Jesuit school located in the heart of the city. It has been a longstanding institute of Spain but actually got its origins as a seminary in Comillas, a city in northern Spain. Due to its deep history, Comillas offered a trip to its exchange students to see the original university in the city Comillas!

This photo is taken from one of the corridors of the building looking out towards the courtyard and the main atrium/church. It was interesting to learn about why/when the university moved to Madrid and what it is used for today (another university purchased it after being abandoned for many years). This experience gave me a broader scope to how old some European institutions are compared to OSU.

Last, but not least, the experience that destroyed my rainboots, but was somehow the most peaceful I had ever felt while traveling. This photo was taken at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. We did a day trip from Dublin to here one day (left around 6 a.m. via bus with a tour group and returned around 9 p.m.). I still don’t know what it was about this specific place that felt different from all the others, but I can’t put my finger on it.

Something about looking off the cliffs into the ocean was calming and also incredibly scary and filled me with adrenaline. At times the walking/hiking path was small and covered in rocks, puddles, and mud pits (which is why my boots did not make it back to the states with me). After three hours of walking the path, we had to get on the bus to return to Dublin, but I probably could have stayed there forever. Looking back, I could have just been really refreshed from being able to speak English again, but I like to think the cliffs are magical.

Every part of my experience abroad changed me for the better, and now that I have returned to the states I am starting to see those changes in myself. For example, I recently noticed that I adopted the more relaxed Spanish approach to being early/on-time to events. Before going abroad, I was 20 minutes early to almost everything, but now I am more relaxed and prioritize what situations I need to be early in, and show up on time to the rest of my commitments. Before I went abroad, people would always ask me why I was going abroad/how I picked Madrid and I never had a solid answer, but looking back I now know what my ultimate goal of the experience was and that I achieved it.

My major goal of going abroad was getting a deeper understanding of myself and becoming more independent. Since my hometown is only an hour away from OSU, I always felt like if the opportunity arose to live/work in another area of the country, I would be too afraid to take the plunge. Going abroad as the only OSU student at my institution helped me to conquer these fears. Not only am I confident that I can keep myself alive (remembering to eat and other basic things), I can travel and manage myself independently. I funded my entire experience abroad by myself through scholarships and financial aid, made friends and connections in the country by always networking and attending social events, and learned a lot about myself because I was not influenced by anyone who knew me before. Oftentimes, you become who people tell you you are (you grow up around your parents and are influenced by their opinions on your character for example) but being abroad releases you from that. I was able to see who I was in an entirely new environment filled with new people and an opportunity to recreate myself if I so chose.

This trip allowed me to realize that when/if the time comes I will be able to take the plunge and move away from everything I’ve ever known. However, the trip helped me affirm my decision that Columbus is the place for me for a few years after graduation, and that has lifted a major weight off of my shoulders.

For anyone considering going abroad, my advice is always to go and for as long as your life plan allows (a week, a month, or even a year)! However, I understand that it is a major financial burden. My advice is to start early, pick a city that is within your budget, and apply for every single scholarship possible. Doing these things will ensure that you maintain your intended graduation date, do not undergo a huge amount of debt to fund your global experience, and it will prevent problems down the road such as Visa delays, expensive flights, etc. Going abroad seems daunting, but during my trip I kept reminding myself “If other students can do it, I can too” and reminding myself of that got me through the semester.

All the Not-So-Good Things and How to Deal with Them

Michaela Santalucia shares some of her start of semester challenges as she started her life in Madrid, Spain on the Student Exchange Program, to help future students prepare for some things they may confront. At the end, the challenges she faced helped her develop her independence, be a better problem-solver, and grow her resiliency. Skills she plans to use moving forward!

One of my biggest fears doing an exchange program was the level of independence required, especially since it was my first time abroad. Before I left I kept thinking “What if something bad happens and I don’t know how to handle it and I have to come home” or “What if I can’t handle adult problems like dealing with my landlord in Spanish?”. I think these fears are present in many people’s heads when they are heading abroad and/or these fears are holding them back. For these reasons, I made a list of the not-so-great things that happened to me to prove to everyone that you will be okay. Also, I can now laugh at these experiences (at the time I didn’t find them as hilarious).

On my way to Madrid and in my first few days in Spain, I ran into some issues that at the time seemed really inconvenient and I wasn’t sure how to navigate, but that I managed fairly well. Here they are:

  1. On my flight to Madrid, we hit some moderately scary turbulence (my phone and book flew into the air). This was incredibly scary because this one lady wouldn’t stop screaming, and it was only the third time I have ever been on a plane, so I was freaking out for a few minutes. Luckily, the pilot came of the intercom to assure us we would be okay, and that he was going to try to fly around the storm rather than through it. I think I fell back asleep within 15 minutes.
  2. After it taking me 20 minutes inside the Madrid-Barajas Airport to figure out the MyTaxi App (I highly encourage downloading this before you arrive and connecting your credit card in advance to make your airport experience easier, if you don’t want to speak Spanish to a taxi driver), I finally made it to the taxi. However, when I was getting into the car I dropped my phone outside of the car and almost left it. Luckily, I heard something fall and stopped the driver right after he pulled away and ran back for it. Not only was I embarrassed, but I think I saw my actual life flash before my eyes on day one.
  3. The first day I was in the city, I literally just slept the entire day. However, on the second day, I needed to leave to buy groceries and furnishings for my apartment. On my way back home from the grocery store, I could not get my apartment unlocked despite having the key. The key was not a traditional key I was used to because the building was old, and despite turning the key all the way until it stopped, the door would not open. At this point, my roommates were not in the apartment yet, and my landlord’s office was not open and they could not be reached.

With no other solution in sight, I started knocking on doors in my buildings. Person after person rejected the exasperated girl speaking broken Spanish at their door (probably because my Spanish was making no sense). However, I finally found a woman to come and help. She got the door open after many tries and we practiced on the door together. However, when I left again later, the same thing happened, and I could not get the door open. I had to ask another stranger for help. At this point, I was afraid to leave my apartment, so I spent the entire weekend inside until I could get into contact with my landlord because I didn’t want to get locked out, have no one to help me, and have to pay for a locksmith. On Monday I called the landlord probably 5 times to get them to send someone over. When they finally came, they taught me the trick to opening the door (which they probably should have told me when I checked in) and I never got locked out again.

This was by far the scariest part of my entire trip. I called my mom crying (which made her freak out) and I had never wanted to come home more than I did on this day. However, looking back on it, I realized that I was letting my fear get to me, because if I could open the door at any point, I probably could have opened it those first few days, but I let my exhaustion and fear of being in a new country get a hold of me. Additionally, it taught me that I would have to be incredibly persistent with my landlord in comparison to the U.S. Now that I have overcome that though, I feel like I am more resilient.

  1. The last semi-dramatic thing that happened to me abroad was that when I arrived, our toilet was broken for almost two weeks. Upon arriving to the apartment, I noticed that there was water by the toilet, but since it had rained, I thought it had come through the open bathroom window, boy o boy was I incorrect. Turns out, every time we flushed the toilet, some of what we flushed would end up on the bathroom floor minutes later. Generally, Spaniards are a little more relaxed than in the U.S., and the landlords follow suit when answering requests. We had to email them a total of ten times to even get them to come to the apartment. In total, it took 12 days for them to completely fix the toilet, and for most of those, I refused to go into the bathroom because of the smelly health hazard. This experience taught me that those in charge are not as receptive in the U.S. and without resources like Student Legal Services and the Student Advocacy Center, I would constantly need to advocate and push for my needs while abroad.

At the time, all of these experiences seemed like everything I feared before I left was coming true. However, these problems have taught me how to rely on myself for problem-solving, advocate for my needs, and maintain my own safety.

Although these experiences were difficult and should be discussed. They were outweighed by the positive experiences I had. While in Spain, I formed cross-cultural friendships inside and outside the classroom that will last me a lifetime. With my fellow students, I was able to discuss world problems and receive viewpoints and experiences that are not common in the United States. For example, I learned a ton about the Denmark legal system while in Spain, just by comparing business law with another student in my class. This cross-cultural experience was the most valuable part of my trip.

However, learning to manage all of my apartment problems did have some almost immediate real-world applications. While traveling during my time abroad (to England, Ireland, Morocco, Germany, and within Spain) I felt like my problems solving abilities was heightened. I understood that when I experienced a problem or mix up in a different country (language barriers, transportation issues, payment mix-ups), that I need to be conscientious of the culture of the country I was in and how my American mindset would cause me to react to things. This allowed the few mix ups I had while traveling (flight delays, credit card problems, not knowing how to use public transport) to seem like small bumps in the road whereas if they occurred at the beginning of my time abroad it would have seemed world ending. Reflecting on my trip abroad, it has allowed me to realize that I can feel completely comfortable travelling almost anywhere in the world, and that would not have been possible without all the not-so-good things.

17 Things I Noticed During My First Month Abroad

While her semester in Spain on the Student Exchange Program, Michaela Santalucia shares the differences she observed in Spanish culture and U.S. Culture, from eating habits, social norms, and daily expectations!

In my first few weeks in Madrid, I noticed some interesting differences between Spanish culture and U.S. Culture. Rather than writing paragraphs, I decided to make it a list so that everyone can reference it easily. All of these are in no particular order of importance or relevance.

  1. Mayonnaise– The mayonnaise in Spain and most of Europe is much different compared to what we have in the United States. Also, Europeans put it on a lot more stuff (for example, many people dip their fries in mayo and ketchup which if you have not tried is magical). At one of the first events of the semester, I watched many Spaniards pass around bottles of ketchup and mayo instead of ketchup and mustard and I knew something was up. I was hoping to be able to bring some Spanish mayo back to the U.S., but my suitcase was already full, so I do not get to keep this delicacy around. However, I think it is better than what we have in the U.S., so I am exploring import options for the good of everyone.
  2. Phones are older– Spaniards are not constantly buying the newest smartphones. While I was there, there was still a decent amount of advertisements for the iPhone 7, and a majority of available cases were for the 6,7 and 8. My guess is that because Spain’s economy is not the strongest, their first priority is not buying the newest smartphones, but it was still an interesting comparison to the United States.
  3. Hiring/firing practices– From my understanding, it is incredibly difficult to get both hired and fired and Spain. This is because the firing process is nearly impossible, so they have to make sure early on that you are not a risk.
  4. Grocery store styles– There are stores every 2-3 blocks that fit different needs. The traditional grocery stores are incredibly small and carry 1-2 brands of every product. However, there are tons of specific stores also. There are an equal number of fresh produce, fish, meat, and bakery stores interspersed between the grocery stores. Spaniards generally shop more frequently than we do in the U.S. because their kitchens have less storage space and they place a higher value on fresh goods.
  5. Pharmacies– There are literally pharmacies on every corner, and medicine is relatively easy to get. However, they give you an entire package of medication instead of just a few pills so that can seem overwhelming.
  6. Spanish Hours– In Madrid, the days start later and go a lot slower than in the U.S. On a Saturday, you won’t see anyone outside walking, or even on a metro until like 10 a.m. Why does that happen you may ask? In Spain, bars and clubs are open until 6 a.m. and many people will stay up that late hanging out with friends no matter their age.
  7. Old people living their best lives– There are more elderly people out and about it Spain than in the U.S. There are entire restaurants, clubs, bars, and parks where the elderly are known to congregate and hang out together. This is just something we don’t see as much in the U.S.
  8. Trash/recycling things– In Madrid since everyone lives in apartments, the trash is done in larger groupings. Every night, the landlord of each building wheels out trash bins for organic waste and normal waste. Then, between the hours of 11 p.m.- 2 a.m. every night (except Saturdays), municipal workers come to collect it. Recycling is done with large dumpster-like containers, generally one per square block, and is separated into glass, paper/cardboard, and metal/aluminum. These are generally also picked up every night.
  9. Always cleaning the streets– Due to the number of people in Madrid on any given day, Madrid has a team of workers who are always cleaning the streets. They walk around with brooms, shovels, and trash cans and clean the streets constantly to ensure that leaves, cigarettes, and other assorted trash does not build up.
  10. American music– When I first came to Madrid, I was hoping to increase my knowledge of Spanish by hopefully learning lots of Spanish pop music. However, the majority of music played is American, which can sometimes be disappointing.
  11. No screens– None of the windows, doors, or any other pathway to the outdoors has a screen to protect you from bugs. There are basically no bugs which makes the lack of screens sensible, but it is still difficult to adjust to.
  12. No air conditioning– I never saw a house or apartment that had air conditioning, and considering it was still upper 80s into October, I could have used air conditioning.
  13. Money is different sizes and different colors– Euros are fun to adjust to.
  14. Taking a two-hour break in the middle of school every day– Most of my classes had a two-hour break in the afternoon so the professors could eat lunch and run home. Which was nice so I could also eat lunch.
  15. Lunch as the biggest meal of the day– In Spain, lunch is the biggest meal of the day. This means they prioritize eating good food at this time of the day. Also, this means they invented my favorite thing about Spain: the menu del dia. It is essentially a meal with a first course, second course, dessert, and drink all for a convenient price (usually around 10-15 euros, however, there are more expensive options available). I wish I could have brought the menu del dia back to the states with me because I got to try so many different restaurants.
  16. Ham, ham, ham– There is more ham in Spain than I ever expected. As a vegetarian, it could be a little annoying, but it was cool to see actual butcher’s processing meat.
  17. No dryers– Due to Madrid’s dry climate, most people do not feel the need to have a dryer. This means once you take your clothes out of the washing machine, you get to set it on a drying rack and let it dry for anywhere between a few hours to two days. In my opinion, this is really inconvenient because I was not responsible enough to make time for my laundry to dry.