By Abigail Bruning
Spain – the country of bullfighting, wine, massive Cathedrals and small white-washed towns. This country became my home for 6 months, though I would find that it is much more complex than the listed clichés above. Spain is a country on the cusp of the foremost technology and progressive change, though it holds onto its deeply ingrained traditions. It is this dichotomy between modern and traditional, old and new, that is the most intriguing and puzzling part of Spain. Emerging from the dark Franco dictatorship nearly 40 years ago, Spain is at a very interesting point in its national history and I feel very lucky that I was able to see the progress.
The view down Gran Via from the terrace of El Circulo de los Belles Artes
For my abroad experience, I spent the spring semester (January to July) of 2017 living and studying in Madrid, Spain. I attended classes at the Universidad de Carlos III, half of which were taught in Spanish and all of which directly related to my major and minor studies at Georgia Tech. The classes I took have colored my degree with new meaning, as they were taught with a different approach and offered unique perspectives. Though the primary reason for my time abroad was to continue my degree at another prominent university, I would come to find that the most thought-provoking and valuable lessons of this past semester were not attained in a classroom.
During my time in Spain, I feel that I became more aware of my personal interests, both those related to engineering as well as to subjects outside of my studies. This was a time of great personal and professional growth for me, as I became more connected to who I am as a person and as an aspiring engineer. I became more aware of areas in my field that I would like to explore, areas in which I can make a difference, and areas that seem increasingly more relevant. My abroad experience made me a more aware, more thoughtful, and more curious engineering student.
An example of this was the Environmental Technology class I took, which was based in practicality with the focus on teaching the latest technologies available to environmental engineering and related fields. Lessons would jump from the mechanisms of solar panels, to “smart cities,” to the structure and qualities of an efficient and environmentally-friendly wastewater treatment plant. In this class, each concept was taught and then directly followed by an example in Madrid or Spain. This class would be the most significant class I took in Spain, as it not only inspired me to read more about certain innovative projects happening in Spain, but also bridged my knowledge of each system with how to implement it into a working city.
A government building in Toledo, Spain’s former capital
Unlike a few of my other classes, this class was mainly full-time, local students from around Madrid. As one of the few students from the United States, I was able to contribute a different perspective on some of the topics and further the conversation among the class. I became good friends with several of my classmates and had insightful conversations with them about living in Madrid as a student studying engineering at the university level and as a young adult growing up in Madrid. I felt that compared to the academic setting of Georgia Tech, the atmosphere of the classrooms in Spain were more egalitarian-focused and less competition-based.
Cultural immersion was primarily a focus of mine when choosing and making lifestyle choices. I felt that living in a dorm on campus would limit my exposure to the city and make me more prone to sticking within my comfort zone and befriending other American exchange students. Ultimately, I decided to live in a flat of other international students. I felt this would not only connect me with other people in a position similar to mine, but it also allowed me to live closer to the center of the city.
My flatmates and I at our last dinner together
Including myself, there were 12 people living in the flat, and together we represented nine different countries. I learned an incredible amount just by talking with each of my flatmates, getting to know their backgrounds and understanding their stories. The smallest of details would sometimes launch an interesting debate of our cultural differences. Whether discussing Brexit as a precursor to Donald Trump’s victory or the architectural integrity of the Pantheon in Rome, the conversations I had within the walls of my flat would prove to be just as enlightening as some of my courses.
Attached to my goal of cultural immersion was the idea of really understanding the country of Spain and what it means to be Spanish. The modern-day Spaniard still varies regionally, as many Spaniards first identify as their region and then as Spanish. In more ways than this, I felt that Spain was unique, in its structure, culture and development, and therefore, I made it a focus of mine to research and visit many areas of Spain. Each region I visited colored my impression of Spain an even deeper shade, giving me a fuller and brighter understanding of the complexity of Spain.
Traveling with friends to Los Picos de Europa in Asturias, Spain
Even just within Madrid, I was amazed by the civil engineering work of the city. My favorite piece of infrastructure in Madrid is the metro system, which is the 7th longest in the world. Never having lived in a city where my commute to class included a metro ride, I had to adjust to navigating such an extensive system on a regular basis. To get to campus, I would ride the metro a few stops before transferring to the “Cercanias,” the local, long-distance train network that connects to the suburbs of Madrid. Like many things in life, sometimes it takes going through the process of using such a large system in order to fully understand how it works. I loved looking at the maps and routing different connections. I would read about the development of the system and the various initiatives the government took to maintain and expand it. This is one simple example of how my understanding of city development expanded during my time in Madrid.
The Renfe train station in Seville, Spain
Apart from living and traveling within Spain, I also made the effort to travel some outside of the country. One of the most notable cities I visited was Amsterdam. The sustainability and cohesiveness of the infrastructure was impressive. Although it is known as a “bike city,” I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible other forms of transportation were. During my long weekend in Amsterdam, I rode a bike, walked, and took the metro, all while avoiding a cab, and the roads were equally as well-maintained. This was why the city was so impressive to me: every person living in Amsterdam has four ways to get to work. This seemed to be the stark difference between the sustainability level of a city like Amsterdam compared to most American cities. American cities are extremely dependent on cars as the primary form of transportation, causing most of the limited fiscal funding to be used to improve the road networks, while other forms of transportation are neglected. It became clear to me that for a city to be sustainable, it does not mean having one system that is completely developed, but rather a variety of transportation networks that gives people multiple options for how to get from point A to point B.
The bikes and canals of Amsterdam
For six months of 2017, my home was across the ocean, which was at once a terrifying and thrilling realization. Those six months proved to be a time of both obstacles and triumphs, of deep personal growth, and of developing my perspective as a global citizen. The semester I spent in Spain has permanently altered my perspective on travel, engineering, and the world as a whole. I was consistently humbled by the realization of the magnitude of the world and its people, understanding more than ever the vitality of designing sustainable cities and infrastructure to service the ever-growing global population. My perspective was tested and expanded to include new ideas I had not previously thought of and ways of life I had not previously experienced.
The International Women’s March of Madrid on Gran Via
Spain offered the perfect venue for my personal growth. Between marching in the International Women’s March to gazing at the world-famous art collection in the Prado Museum, Madrid especially captured my heart. I can confidently claim that after my semester abroad, I have a fuller idea of the world, a more mindful approach to engineering, and greater belief in my ability to adapt to unforeseen challenges.
Gracias por todo, España!
*Editor’s note: This is an extremely condensed version of Abigail’s story. If you’d like to hear more let us know!