University Life: Home and Abroad

For this week’s TCU blog assignment, I get to channel my inner nerd and talk about differences between the American and Spanish education systems. I want to be a political science professor when I grow up (if I word it that way it makes graduation seem further away and I feel less old), precisely because I get to go to school and study the latest developments in knowledge for the rest of my life. Education at every stage of life is important, but for me college is the most interesting. College is the time when you get to pick your favorite subjects and study them in depth (Political science is the best major; I wouldn’t trade it for the world). It’s the time when you take a seemingly random class to fulfill a gen. ed. and it ends up impacting you so much that you’re still talking about that class you took freshman year (Thanks, Dr. Fort, for your World Religion in Communities course). It’s the time when classes and the people you meet collide and challenge you and make you reflect on what you think and who you are, rather than what other people tell you to think and be (It would take me days to recount all of those instances, but I can say that I’ve had some amazing professors at TCU and some very special friends without whom I would be a completely different person).

The neat thing about college is that you’re not just going to class. University is a life experience. As a pretty small school, TCU possesses a strong sense of community. So when your Model UN team travels to NYC and spots a guy walking around Central Park in a TCU ball cap, naturally you all (I’m sorry, y’all) have to throw up your hand and yell, “Go Frogs!” Your power color for any and every occasion? Purple, obviously. What are you doing every Saturday in autumn? Donning your best sundress and cowboy boots and cheering on the football team of course (In Gary we trust). There’s an organization for every interest under the sun, and you won’t find a student who isn’t involved in something on campus that they’re really passionate about. Students volunteer all over the community, and the people of Fort Worth love and care for their Frogs.

This is the place to be for every Horned Frog in the community


In Spain, college is quite different. In my experience, the motivations I have for going to college, the reasons I love this season of life, just aren’t present in Spain. Educational priorities are totally different. And I just don’t feel the sense of passion for university life that is so prominent at TCU.

There are on-campus events for the International Center at UPO, mostly intercambio events where Spaniards and study abroad students can practice speaking each other’s language, but aside from that, the non-scholastic life at the Universidad de Pablo Olavide (UPO) isn’t too lively. On our orientation tour, I asked the UPO student leading the tour if there were a lot of student organizations on campus. “There are a couple music groups, a choir,” she said, “but not really, no.” She just sort of said it matter-of-factly, as if it were completely normal. When I was accepted to my study abroad program, one of the first things I looked for on UPO’s website was if they had a Model UN team. No such luck. It’s hard to believe that something so central to my college experience doesn’t even exist at this university.

Because most people stay in their hometown for college, they still have the group of friends they grew up with around, so the need to make new friends through campus organizations isn’t quite so high. One major difference between American and Spanish university life is that in Spain it is highly unlikely that you would go to a university other than the one closest to your home.  My intercambio lives in a small town outside of Sevilla, and for her it wasn’t even a question that she would go to either UPO or the Universidad de Sevilla. Universities are strategically placed so living at home during school is more feasible. In Andalucía, for example, “a university per province has meant that educational opportunities are within geographical reach of the population” (OECD, see figure below). One reason for this is the high cost of living away from home and the cultural tendency to live at home until you’re married or much older. That’s a mindset that I struggle to wrap my brain around considering that I threw away every college brochure in my state and the neighboring states precisely so I could learn to be independent. At TCU, where many people are new to the city, we use student organizations to find a new type of family. My freshman year, we had a Model UN family Thanksgiving dinner, for example, and TCU students study and live together on and near campus as one giant community. In Spain, the friends and family you grew up with are that community even in college.

andalucia univeristies
Universities in each province in Andalucía (Source: OECD)


Nor, at least in my experience, do I see much of the same excitement and drive for academics in Spain that I see at my home university. Some of my professors in Spain have said that a seven on a 10-point grading scale is good, whereas I would be panicking if I saw that on my test. Students do study for exams, but it’s more of an individual effort rather than the solidarity of the TCU community cramming in the library with study groups. Why? Because the library at UPO closes at 9 PM. No 24-hour library hours like at TCU, haha. It’s also interesting to note that we Americans in Spain are by far the exception to the rule when we use a coffee shop as a place to study rather than to socialize. We’ve definitely received some interesting looks for trekking into a café with our giant “American” backpacks.

spanish grades
Yes, that does indeed say that a 7/10 is “very good.” (Source:


The way non-students perceive school is also utterly foreign to me. My host mom was deeply concerned that I spent hours studying this weekend, telling me I needed to tomar el sol, get some sunshine, and go out and have fun. Weekends are for rest and fun, she tells me often. In her mind, it didn’t make sense why having 5 midterms in 4 days with no concept of how difficult of graders the professors would be meant that perfectionist me absolutely did need to spend that time studying. (For the record, I did do some studying outside, I’m not lacking vitamin D).

Even more surprising to me was the conversation that I had with someone in the Parque de los Príncipes the other day. In the US, when someone asks what you’re studying, he/she tends to at least feign interest and speaks encouragingly about the future you’re making for yourself. The man I met in the park could not have been more disgusted that I was studying political science. “Qué aburrido,” he told me. How boring. I told him I found it interesting, and he flat-out said, “No, it’s not interesting.” His only comfort was that I wanted to be a professor and not a politician. I understand the disillusion that Spaniards have with their politicians, but it saddened me that this man couldn’t see the good in the next generation studying such an important topic. (Aside: Politics is the study how your society is run, people! How can you not care? End rant).

Studying abroad is not just a matter of going to another school in another country. College life is completely different here, and it’s strange blending my American school habits with the Spanish system. I love Spain, but as far as school life goes, I think I will be ready for the motivation for success that both the intensity and the community at TCU provide. Because in the words of Dorothy, “There’s no place like home.” Or like Horned Frog Country.


Source: OECD (2010), Higher Education in Regional and City Development: Andalusia, Spain 2010, OECD Publishing.

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