Spring 2021 - Saint Louis University Madrid
Hometown: San José, California
Gigi (Giselle) Villa is a Business Management Major and Finance Minor who has just completed her Spring 2021 semester abroad in Madrid, Spain through the Saint Louis University Madrid program, which took place from January 18, 2021- May 13, 2021. Gigi will be graduating from USF Spring 2022 semester. The Center for Global Education met virtually with Gigi to conduct this interview after Gigi agreed to share her experience from abroad. Read below to learn about the challenges and rewards of studying abroad during the COVID-19 global pandemic, as told by Gigi. We hope students looking to study abroad (in Spain or elsewhere) find this interview insightful!
GV: Accessibility was the main reason. I was stuck between Cuba and Spain: I was sure I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country, but there were so many options. (I thought) If I go to Cuba, I learn about them and that's it-- and that's wonderful! But if I go to España (Spain), then I at least have more liberty. Again, this was me (thinking) my freshman year-- pre-COVID-- didn't know there was going to be a pandemic. I just had this dream where I saw myself in Spain, going to other places, learning about other cultures and so on, rather than just Spain.
I also wanted to learn more about the culture that colonized my (Mexican) culture. I needed to know about my roots and I have learned so much! So I decided that (Saint Louis Madrid program) Freshman year and I refused to let it change, even despite the pandemic. I said, "It's okay, even if I'm in Spain there's so much I can do within Spain," and I was able to go to a lot of places so that's great.
GV: When I got to the airport (in Madrid) at 11pm, it was a hot mess. There were lines, and after going through immigration they kind of rounded us up, and they had a tape that you couldn't cross and everyone was waiting there and no one made a line. We were all just huddled there trying to keep some distance, but we didn't know what to do. People were being checked one by one, "let me see your PCR test". Some people were getting checked, some weren't; it was inconsistent.
It was interesting to see how we were figuring (dealing with the pandemic) out because this semester was Saint Louis University Madrid's first semester accepting students from abroad again. Last semester was online, so we were definitely taking things one at a time, trying to figure it out. When I first got here, right off the bat there were all these rules being enforced-- social distancing, anywhere I went there were signs, (police) officers walking the streets, and if you didn't have a mask they would call you out and give you a 600 euro fine. I felt safe! Everyone had a mask, any public area you went to had hand sanitizers-- it was very consistent throughout Madrid.
And then (Saint Louis University Madrid): there were only certain students that could be on campus, and we definitely had to switch to bigger rooms throughout the semester. We had a few surges, a few COVID spikes, but Saint Louis University Madrid was so quick on containing it. When there was one group that tested positive for whatever reason, they would quickly contain it because people were pretty straightforward, which I was surprised about because I thought people would try to hide it. But no, they would be straightforward like, "get me tested, I need to figure it out," and then that whole group that was exposed would get tested in the process. So I always felt very secure in that sense. The COVID-19 process was being communicated to us, if anything changed that was communicated to us, so that was nice.
COVID-19 tests are expensive, so tell that to the students coming here! Saint Louis University students get international insurance (which covers their COVID-19 tests). We (visiting study abroad students) do not*, so anytime I needed a COVID-19 test and was not showing symptoms I had to pay for it.
In general, Madrid was the most open city-- you could pretty much go anywhere in all of Madrid. As soon as you went to other communities (cities/municipalities), they had like curfews at 6pm.
*CGE wishes to note that USF students participating in a sponsored program (which Saint Louis University Madrid is a sponsored program) are enrolled in USF's supplemental International SOS Travel & Health insurance, which works in conjunction with a student's domestic insurance while abroad.
GV: I love all the professors that I had. What I see in the Bay Area is that your professor will most likely work at different universities. Here in Madrid, it's like, no-- our professor has been here for more than 20 years, and this is the only university she works at, and she devotes her entire time to this. She takes her students out in Madrid, and I just love the devotion that the professors have here! It's a different vibe, and since it's a smaller school, smaller campus, you feel like you're constantly running into your professors. Some have invited us to the park, so there's that connection with them. We've gone out to the amusement park with them on a Sunday, and then we went to-- what I like to say, their Central Park-- Casa de Campo. I love that deep connection that you can get with them. It's nice.
At first I was a little skeptical, this is a really small campus. There's three separate buildings-- one whole block-- you're kinda forced to know everyone. We were not even at full capacity, so I'm curious to see how the dynamic would be when there's 400-600 students rather than the 200-300 that were here this semester. It's a different vibe. Definitely more tight-knit community. And all the permanent students (four-year, degree-seeking) were very willing to go out and mingle with study abroad students, so that was very nice.
I saved all my core classes for study abroad since my freshman year. So here in Madrid I took five classes: theology, philosophy, ethics, history, and dance. You only get 3 credits a class so it's weird going from 4 credit courses at USF to 3 credits here. For my theology class, we had a professor from Croatia who was born and raised during the war, which was so intriguing-- we learned so much through this man! Philosophy gave me a headache. For ethics, I didn't know I was taking a 400-level course until I was given the 400-level readings and 400-level assignments, but the class was on Animals & Ethics, so it was such a rewarding class! It was never boring. For history I took: The Atlantic World, which was another 400-level class. That class was great--they sent us out to see the museums here and it was crazy to see how much nationalism is here. They're like, "we discovered the Americas!" and everyone deeply believes that... And then Latin Rhythms Dance class, definitely one of my favorite classes; the most demanding! It was three hours-- just constant, go, go, go! And in tacones (heels)-- it was great! So rewarding!
GV: Yes! So during orientation, Saint Louis University Madrid had their involvement fair and they let us know about the extracurricular activities and all that. A lot of them ended up falling through due to COVID-19. There was a cooking class that they thought would be great with everyone and their different cultures, but then they thought about the reality and well... it's kinda hard with COVID-19. BUT, luckily, one that didn't fall through that I really loved was ESL (English as a Second Language). I ended up teaching my own ESL class! My housemate and I got a class of originally 13 and then at the end we had 5 consistent, brave souls-- I loved them! They came every time, haha.
The ESL class was an intermediate class and we started with 13 people, and they were all older people-- it was great! I ended up figuring out whether I see myself as a teacher in the future-- and I don't-- but we had a great time together! I think our youngest was 25 years old and we went up to like 80-something year olds. It was wonderful. Every Tuesday, an hour and a half of class of ESL, and it was 12-13 weeks I think. And that was the only extracurricular that I was able to fit in because I didn't understand how demanding every class would be, in terms of readings.
In my free time, I was traveling! Like every weekend. It was a constant grind during the week, and like, crying and coffee, and then a weekend of traveling. I didn't have any class on Fridays so I could start traveling Friday morning at like 6am or 8am: get a bus for somewhere and just be there the entire weekend, and come back (to Madrid) either Monday morning right before class, or Sunday night at like, midnight. The good thing is that in Madrid, there's a 30 euro flat rate from the airport to anywhere in Madrid (or vice versa). When I arrived in Madrid for the first time, for example, I took a taxi from the airport to my host family, and I paid cash. I think Saint Louis University Madrid told me to have 30 euros on me-- smart!
I went to Barcelona, Valencia, and the Canary Islands for spring break (among others). During spring break, Spain said the only two places that were going to be open (to tourists) in all of Spain were Madrid and the Canary Islands. And so those two (cities) were flooded. Good to know the Canary Islands are large enough for you to feel isolated in there-- we did not see another soul while we were there. I think I only stayed in Madrid two weekends. The first few weekends I stayed here because I was like "I gotta explore all Madrid!", but then after, I was like, "alright, I did everything; let's go out!"
When I traveled outside of Madrid to other communities in Spain, there were a lot of housing options through Airbnb that were very economic. You could get something for (a weekend) for 20 bucks and it was great: you would have your own kitchen and balcony, so they were nice! But for transportation, I felt like it was much more expensive (due to the pandemic) because there weren't enough people. I always traveled via bus because there was less risk in having the cops stop us, whereas if I were to take the train there were cops that would ask you for your passport, identification, where you were going, and everything.
Three options that I would recommend to people (for travel): RENFE-- their train-- that's like 100 dollars to go a 4-5 hour distance. Then, there's the bus, which is like 30 or 20 euros, same distance, but it will take longer by like one or two hours. And then there's the rideshare BlaBlaCar: it's like Uber and it's the cheapest because if there's people already going to a city and they have free spots in their backseat, they rent that out and you just share with them through the app. Google Maps was recommending BlaBlaCar to me and that's how I came across it. So you go from 100 on the train, 30 on the bus, and then like 12-15 on the car through the rideshare.
GV: Yeah, I definitely tried to have a routine because I quickly realized that I had a pretty strict routine in San Francisco and then coming here, I was like, "I need to maintain a routine"-- just cause, I don't know, having felt like there's no purpose (back home, with the pandemic and online classes) and then there being so much to do (here in Spain) was very overwhelming, so I figured out quickly that I needed to build a routine.
My busiest days were Tuesday and Thursday. Those days I just focused on getting through the day and surviving. I had classes from like 11am until 8:30pm (which was ESL), and they were back to back. I had 15 minutes between each class, so those days I just survived.
Monday and Wednesday, since it was freer, those days I would allocate the entire morning to going to school early to study, or to cafés-- I was obsessed with cafés; the amount of money I've dropped on cafés, oh my gosh-- Spaniards and their coffee, I swear... You could just go out (to a café) and study for like two or three hours, they never kick you out. So those days I would just study, study, study, and then when I was done for the day, I would go to a museum since students have free admission for a lot of the museums. So it was very much: school, try and get some coffee, and visit museums and whatever I can squeeze in.
I was reflecting about what I'm going to pick and choose (for my routine) when I get back (to the States) because clearly I've acquired certain habits while I'm here and certain perspectives. And so when I get back and create a new routine, what am I going to keep with me? And what else am I going to leave, or just keep in the back of my mind? So I'm interested in seeing what will happen.
GV: I chose (to live with) a host family. Something really interesting is that I ended up switching my host families, so this is my second host family. I would recommend this family 24/7, everyday!
The first family-- they were great, they just weren't up to my standards. And I didn't know what my standards should have been until I started hearing about other student experiences in my program-- they were telling me about their host families and I started seeing, "wow, my host family's doing the bare minimum and there's no connection."
When you study abroad and you're a student in someone's family, there's kind of an unsaid agreement-- I think-- that you have this communication with them, you have this bond. That they sit down with you to talk about Spain (or host country), history, and all that-- and you feel like there's a family there! Nooooooooo. My first host family would constantly close the door; we were very separated. The front of the house was our (study abroad students) section. My housemate and I had different rooms for COVID-19 reasons. After you walked down a hallway, that was their house, and they always kept the door closed, and it was very separated. I felt like I could never go there-- to their section-- even though they were like, "yes you can." On the housing application, the host family had taken photos and said, "this is the house, you can sit on our couch, you can chill with the dogs" but no, it was really closed off. It just did not feel welcome.
How did you go about changing your host family?
GV: My housemate and I contacted Saint Louis University Madrid and it was a very complicated process. Student housing told us we could reach out to other families and meet with them, and if we liked them, to just let Student Housing know and that we could move in the next day or that weekend or something. Little did we know that every time we met with a host family, we had to decide in that moment whether we liked them or not, and if we didn't, they discarded that family as an option and we could never go back to them. So, if we kept going forward with the process and didn't like anyone, and then after like 5 host families we decided we liked the first one, we couldn't go back. And I don't think that's fair, because what if the first family was the best option?
Then, when we ended up finding a family, Student Housing told us, "Oh, by the way, you can't switch between this whole week period," and we were already a month in at this point in the whole process of switching host families. Finally, everything got sorted, and we had a day set to move out, and then Student Housing called our first host family without our knowledge (with whom we were still living with), and they told them our reasons for moving out-- even though Student Housing explicitly told us they would not do this-- and these host parents confronted us and so it was a really rocky process. But thankfully, we were able to move and it's been great since, and I just put that behind us, haha.
The host family we have now is AMAZING! They've been doing this for like 20 something years, and a student from 2002 is coming back and staying here this summer because they're like, "I'm gonna visit Spain but I'm gonna stay with you guys because I just love you guys," and this person calls this host family frequently. This host family puts in so much time and effort-- they sit down with us at lunch and talk. The first day we had dinner with them-- because our friend lived here-- we didn't even know we were gonna move in with them yet, and the host mom was writing down, "in case you want to come over and have dinner again, what do you like? what do you not like?" She was writing down a list because my house mate is super picky. The host mom is so attentive. The host family gives us ideas of what to see and do, we hang out, it's very much a family here. They saw my dance final showcase today and it was great, they were supporting me, and they're gonna celebrate with me later. And whenever I'm on call with my mom, they come over and talk to my mom. This host family wants to be here for us. They wake up and they wanna be here every day-- they wanna continue it, they love it, and it shows. The care shows.
GV: The metro system here is wonderful-- I mean, it's confusing at times, but it's super quick. They have trains literally every other minute.
In my first host family, I was closer to the school so I would walk everyday; it was a 30 minute walk. It was a beautiful route because it had that city vibe: very concentrated, populated, so there's always things going around. Now that I'm a little further with my current host family, I take the metro to school, and it's also 30 minutes. If I were to walk, it would be like 50 minutes. I'm at the center, very, very center of Madrid. Like, the President's House of Madrid is a block down, so it's great. It's like living next to Time's Square, I guess that would be the best example.
GV: I like how it's a personal journey. My perception of study abroad before I came over was, "I'm gonna try and cram everything I can," essentially, into 5 months. And then once I got here-- especially during COVID-19-- I've realized this is a very personal journey. There's a lot that I'm learning about myself. What I like, what I don't like, who I want to be, who I don't want to be, just from like, going out and seeing certain people our hanging out with certain people. I noticed that there's a lot of cultures that you come across, they have their own sense of culture, but the highlight is just like, wow, I'm constantly getting checked. Constantly having to catch myself and be like, alright, I don't like this situation, I don't like this scenario, um, you know, I'm gonna do this on my own. I did a few solo trips-- I never thought I'd do that! I went to Barcelona and Valencia on my own, and those were both full weekend trips, and so those were highlights of their own.
And yes, there were moments when I felt alone, but then I had to realize-- why? And then it brought me closer to myself but it also helped me check in with the people back home. Because when I came here, I was like, "BYE WORLD! GIS IS HERE!" But now I know, that's not it. That's not everything. I still have the homies at home and everything. In Barcelona, for instance, I was constantly walking around on call with my mom giving her a tour like, "amá, !mira!" like giving her a tour-- "this is La Sagrada Familia", searching up facts on my phone. It deepened my relationship with those relationships I currently had, it helped me nurture them, and then nurture myself, too, and learn about what is self care. Actually though-- not just like, let me do some face masks-- but like, what does it mean to step away from people and be okay with that? I consider myself an extrovert but then I learned how to actually be an introvert and be with myself here. And that was scary; that was truly scary.
I figured out that this is a personal journey, at the end of the day. Yes, I'm gonna find friends, but it's just, figuring that out... I got in tune with myself a lot and I didn't think that was gonna happen. I think studying abroad, I was always focused on other people, other cultures, other things, but I'm like, "no, no, no-- look inside, look inside."
GV: The hardest thing was that, since my study abroad experience was during a pandemic and everything, it was very hard to come to terms with my situation because I looked at other people's experiences, you know, and when they studied abroad, and when they went to Spain, and when things were open. And they would tell me, "When I was in Sevilla I was doing all this-- have you done this? Have you done that yet?" And I had to say, "Oh no, you know, cause they're closed, or I can't go to bars, etc." It was very hard because those three years-- from freshmen year until I actually went abroad-- those three years I was building up this attitude of how it's going to be and everything, you know? And now, there was so many restrictions that it was hard for me to feel fulfilled. There are so many moments when I doubted: should I have come this semester? I mean, I didn't have any other semester I could have come, so it's hard to be like, "was it worth it? Was it worth all the work? Was it a fulfilling experience? Can I say after all of this that I would not have changed it?" And it was definitely interesting because there's a lot of doubt that comes from that. A lot of people have come to Spain to study abroad! So it's just interesting because I'm like, "alright, it's gonna be a unique experience, and I have to come to terms with that; it was fulfilling in my own way because I made it that way and I'm accepting it." I have to readjust my narrative of things and just be like, "yeah! yeah! It was still worth it; still got something from it. It was still cool." So I think that's been the hardest thing, I think I'm probably still going to fight it when I come back (to the States) and look back and be like: "Did I do enough? ... Did I do enough?"
When I went to Valencia, for example, I didn't know their curfew was at 6pm, and it was 6:30pm and I was trying to find a place to eat and I was like, "What do I do?! This wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for COVID-19!" And all the grocery stores were closed, and so it was moments like that when I got a lot of self-doubt, like, "was this worth it?" Like all my friends who had told me about Valencia, who told me to hit up a million places, and half of them were closed and I could only go outside and take photos. It was those moments when I had to readjust my narrative.
GV: Considering that the next crowd (of students) will be going abroad at a weird time when Spain (or the larger world) still probably won't be vaccinated-- in Spain currently (May), they're barely getting people over 80 vaccinated, and so they're probably not going to get everyone--like students-- until December-- I would say: start readjusting your expectations because we're in this (pandemic) for like another year. Things are not going to return back to normal, there's still going to be a lot of communities that I'm sure are going to be closed for much, much longer. So I would just tell students, work on that now. You're still going to work on it when you're here, but start readjusting your expectations. Make them realistic. Be like: "Hey, at the end of the day, what happens, happens, my experience is going to be what I make of it." And for me, I made up for it with things like ESL, where I involved myself more in the community here, and in dance, and I went out more with the students and professors from my host university, and did more trips, and so on. It's just readjusting those expectations.
I always tell myself this-- and sometimes I sound like a hypocrite-- but if you start with zero expectations, you can't be let down; you can only go up from there! You can really only go up from there and be like, "oh my gosh, this is amazing!" Because it is! You shouldn't come here with the expectations that other people put there. I was over here continuously comparing myself and I had to tell myself everyday: "nah, nah, nah, Gigi-- they were not here during the pandemic, it's not the same." So I would tell future students: prepare yourself, mentally prepare yourself as much as you can-- because you can't really prepare yourself, hahaha.
Also-- don't feel bad for switching host families! This is your experience.
And prepare your pockets! Because even though you're not traveling as much, prices definitely ramped up because there was not a lot of business due to the many pandemic-related restrictions and other factors that were impacting each country's economy. Many things have increased in prices-- groceries, and so on-- because they can't really import as much from other places, so just prepare your pockets because even though you may be like: "well, I'm not gonna be traveling as much,"-- yeah, so you'll be spending time where things are expensive! You're gonna be spending more to keep yourself busy-- on food, drinks, etc. I definitely didn't do as much preparation as I should have. I will say, the stimulus helped me out a little sometimes, haha.
GV: The visa process was hectic. I feel like, Fall semester when we were preparing for everything, it felt last minute-- and I know it wasn't, but it felt so last minute because everything was coming together. Having a COVID-19 (PCR) test 72 hours before the flight was nerve-wracking! Thankfully I got mine the day of and didn't have to pay extra, but I heard stories from other students (in my program) that had to wait for their notification literally minutes before they boarded!
My visa came in the day before my flight because they (consulate) were late on it. They said it would take 2-4 weeks, and I sent my completed application in mid-November, and it came in right before I left: so January. That was MUCH longer than 4 weeks!
I was sending (the Spanish Consulate) emails like, "Hey, what's going on?" and they wouldn't reply. So I drove up to San Francisco and I tried entering the consulate at 8am when they opened and they were like, "Sorry, you can't come in," and I was like: "My flight is tomorrow. Today is Friday, tomorrow you're going to be closed." And they were like, "Sorry, you can't". Mind you, they close at 1pm. They told me I had to send emails, and I told them I HAD been sending emails for weeks now and none of them had been responded.
So I went back outside the consulate building and sent emails with URGENT on the subject line and they finally responded like two hours later saying I could come pick it up. This was 30 minutes before they closed the office on Friday, it was so nerve-wracking! And they finally gave the visa to me and were like, "sorry it was late, here you go." And it was not just me-- I was talking to people (in my program) and they said it was really late (for them). Everything was backed up, and I understand, it's just-- there was a lot thrown up in the air (because of the pandemic).