Deba Elaiho (she/her) - Stanford in Madrid
Major: Human Biology
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: This photo was taken during our day trip to Segovia right after we had trekked up what seemed like miles of winding stairs to reach the top of the viewpoint at the Alcázar de Segovia. Those of us that weren't burnt out from the climb spent the rest of the time gazing out at the beautiful expanse of Segovia and taking "candid" photos of each other staring at the views.
Questions and Answers with Deba
Why did you choose to study abroad in Madrid?
I’ve always found it so exciting to be able to surround myself in traditions and cultures that are entirely different from my own while also getting to meet new people, discover new places, and learn new languages along the way. With that being said, I felt as though the Madrid program, in particular, would not only enhance my undergraduate experience, but also, just my life in general as the program curriculum aligned with a lot of my personal goals. It's not everyday that you get the opportunity to experience life in another country and as someone who hadn’t really had much of an opportunity to travel within the U.S., much less out of it, I knew studying abroad in Madrid would be an experience that would greatly enrich my life, help me to grow in my Spanish-speaking ability with its commitment to the Language Pledge, and provide the necessary exposure to a new way of living.
What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Madrid?
Although Covid had limited the extent to which we could travel outside of Madrid, I was still expecting to spend a lot of my time abroad seeing more cities within Spain to maximize my exposure to the uniqueness of most regions. However, a few weeks into the program, I quickly realized that would not be the case as I became more aware of the vast array of things to do/explore in Madrid. It began to felt as if 10 weeks wasn't enough to do all that I wanted to do. Though I had still taken some trips to other cities like Barcelona, Granada, Bilbao, and San Sebastián, I did my best to make the most of my time in Madrid specifically.
What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Madrid?
Though I could make the argument that watching Spanish dramas like 'La casa de Papel' and 'Elite' on Netflix is great way of familiarizing oneself with the Spanish language and culture, I also think that there's no better way to become familiar with the Spanish way of life than by living in the country itself and seeing the many ways in which the formal concepts taught in the classroom extend beyond that. Through the academic classes, I was able to hone in on my Spanish skills and dive deeper into the history and culture of Spain, but this learning was also reinforced by all that we saw/experienced during our out-of-classroom trips and the in-depth discussions we would have afterwards that allowed for us to put everything we had learned into practice. One significant aspect of my academic experience in Madrid that I wholeheartedly enjoyed was the ability to engage with the Spanish students in a meaningful manner through the weekly cultural activities and the Charla program. With the help of the Spanish students, I not only got to see another side of Spain that I wouldn't have seen otherwise on my own but I also became very comfortable speaking casual Spanish in a fun, relaxed setting. This was conducive to forming genuine friendships with these Spanish students and helping me to grow closer to my goal of fluency in Spanish. The clinical internship class I was in also allowed me to gain invaluable clinical experience, grow professionally through networking, and become more aware of what it means to practice medicine in another country.
What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?
I honestly surprised myself with the level of spontaneity I grew to have while abroad. I'm usually someone who prefers to have somewhat of a structure to the day and there were so many moments during my time abroad where I found myself just going where the wind would take me, whether I was goofing around with friends during a fun-filled night or walking through the streets during the day trying to find hidden gems in the city. I had also come into the program as a pretty picky-eater, but I was amazed at how many new foods that I endeavored to try, even the less visually appealing foods or foods I had previously sworn I'd never try. I will admit, however, a large part of that was encouraged by my host family and my housemate.
What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?
I ran into an issue during the program where I had had my parents send over an unlocked phone for me to use, but it got stuck in customs. It was especially hard trying to communicate with the customs officials over the phone as my Spanish vocabulary was already a bit limited and I definitely did not have the skill set at the time to have in-depth conversations in Spanish with the customs officials to explain my situation. Thankfully, I reached out to my host mom and one of the Stanford in Madrid staff members for assistance during the whole ordeal and they helped me through it. From that experience, I not only learned the importance of reaching out for help but also came to the conclusion that I never want to go through the process of sending items through international customs again.
What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?
The biggest cultural adjustment for me was probably the greater amount of time allocated to socializing as opposed to working/studying. Coming from the United States, and Stanford at that, really caused me to place a lot of importance on "grind culture" and risk burnout. Living in Spain felt like the complete opposite. It wasn't as though people didn't care for their jobs/academic life, but compared to the U.S., there was ample time available to pause if people needed to. They could also take their "siestas" or go spend time with friends and family. My host family would often question why I spent so much time working on assignments or why I decided to spend the night in the house on a weekend to finish a work-related thing, because they felt my time would be better spent getting out and socializing. It was hard at first, but with a little coaxing from my host family and the other students in the program, I was able to break out of the cycle and spend more time out in the city with friends just as many Madrileños would do.
What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Madrid?
Quality time spent with my host family would definitely top the cake. I always felt at home when I'd come back to the apartment. After a few hours of class, I'd be greeted with the sweet smells of an upcoming meal or be pleasantly surprised by a visit from family members who didn't live in the house. I come from a big family, so it meant a lot to me that we were so integrated into our host family's lives. Whether we were cracking jokes about my picky nature in regard to food, having soccer game watch parties with other family members in the same building, sitting down for big meals with extended family and the grandkids to celebrate Spanish Father's Day, or even taking cross-country roadtrips to learn more about my host dad's culture, my host family played the biggest part in allowing me to feel truly immersed in the everyday experience of a Madrileño.
What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Madrid?
Celebrating Carnival. I'd never really done much to celebrate while in the U.S., but I was curious to see how the tradition would play out in the Spanish culture. I had spent the earlier part of my day at a festival with some of the other students in the program and the Spanish students, so we spent some time dancing in the crowd and singing along to what we could in an effort to also distract ourselves from the cold and the impending rain. Later on in the night, I had gotten dressed up with my housemate and we invited a couple of the other girls in the program to our house to have a little photoshoot, which our host mom was very excited to participate in as a photographer. We reunited with some others in the program much later and had a care-free, unforgettable night where we danced the night away to the music that filled the streets, enjoyed just being in each other's presence, and got some amazing professional pictures to remember the experience by.
What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?
Spontaneous, Unexpected, Genuine, Freedom, Immersive
What was your favorite food you had in Madrid?
Quite surprisingly, I became obsessed with anything and everything related to olives in Spain. I could be frequently found munching on olives during group picnics or dousing my french bread with the trademark richness of extra virgin olive oil (Pan con aceite de oliva). My honorable mention would go to patatas bravas, a must-have appetizer, but it could also function as a small meal on its own.
What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?
A money belt, because it was an easier way to carry a little bit of cash and small essentials with me when I was out and about and didn't want to carry any big bags. It also made me feel a lot safer because of the decreased risk of being pickpocketed.
What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Madrid?
I joined the Rosalía fan base while in Madrid. I had heard a couple of her songs beforehand casually playing on the radio, but she was an artist whose music I quickly began to cycle through during my time abroad. Even now, I still try my hand at attempting to translate her songs before looking at the lyrics, so I can sing along.