On September 3rd I arrived at the city of Barcelona with the program of Brethren Colleges Abroad and twenty one students from small Liberal Arts colleges from across the United States. Then, most of us felt unprepared for our study abroad experience, and some, including myself, were nervous about the idea of studying in Catalonia’s most prestigious university. As October comes to an end, I am now finally able to say that I feel like a real student at the University of Barcelona. I am comfortable attending classes, talking to my professors, commuting from one department to another and even spending time outside of the classroom with other university students. Yet attending a university in a foreign country can be challenging and requires fast adjusting to the oddities and complexities of university life outside of the US. In this blog post I would like to share with you what I have learned about Spanish higher education and offer you an inside view into the intricacies of attending the University of Barcelona.
Exploring for the first time the UB is a unique experience for every one of its visitors. With its six campuses adding up to 1641 square feet , the freshness of a new perspective is guaranteed with every single visit. Each faculty exhibits the natural beauty of historical architecture and modern-day facilities and the presence of gardens and fountains in the middle of courtyards offers a sense of mystical wisdom to the backdrop of higher education. There are eighteen departments at the university, each fully equipped to secure its autonomy from the rest of the departments, including separate business offices, libraries, cafeterias, bookstores and computer labs. In fact, the UB is what is known as a vocational university, which means that contrary to Bethel’s liberal arts model, it is made for students who take only classes specifically designed for their majors. For example, all new law students from day one know exactly which classes they are to take for the rest of their university careers and do not have (not even within their field of study) the opportunity to choose to attend classes that appeal to their particular interests. Thus, all of the classes required for a specific major are found in the same department (in this case political science) and often times are taught by the same professors.
The vocational education system is great for university students who desire to acquire knowledge on one specific field of study, such as future researchers and engineers who will have to work with one another, if not alone, to contribute professionally to their field; but it might now be ideal for everyone. For example, when my BCA group first arrived, our adviser at the university suggested that we take only the classes that pertain to our majors in the United States and avoid at all costs general education requirements. Because what would I do in a chemistry class taken exclusively by chemistry majors? At the UB there are no introductory courses, because the lowest of levels offered for french, for example, is designed exclusively for french philology majors. Thus, the vocational education system makes it hard for foreigners to integrate with students at the UB and is not meant for students like myself, with interdisciplinary interests.
So what did I do to satisfy my multidisciplinary curiosity at the UB? I decided to go all in, and registered to take the classes of Hispanic American Literature till Modernism, Cultural Transmission and Education, Political System of the European Union and Spanish Literature of the Golden Century. I am taking four classes in three different disciplines, including an upper level anthropology class without every having taken an anthropology course. I am, as some local students have told me, either very bright or very dumb. Yet coming from a small college like Bethel has taught me to have confidence in myself and Bethel’s liberal arts model has helped me find ways to relate what I know with what I do not know. I am, in a sense, doing unexpectedly well in the classes I am taking and often times find myself raising my hand in class and speaking my mind without the nervousness of someone who feels out of place. Yes, other students in class have a similar mindset that results in strong camaraderie, but I have found that even they are willing to listen to someone who is coming from a different perspective. There is value in coming from another country and offering an alternative point of view to the one prevalent in a situation and I think in today’s global world people are beginning to see that. It is not hard to convince your peers to feel strongly about something if you all have the same opinion to begin with, but convincing someone outside of that circle is much more challenging and beneficial. It is from having to defend our points of view from other people’s opinions that we really learn to hold firmly to an ideal, and studying at the UB has precisely taught me to fight for what I believe in. Because what good comes from being an expert in our fields if we are unable to explain the simplest of things to anyone outside of our department? A vocational education can be of great use to acquire as much knowledge as possible in a specific field, but a liberal arts education can help you apply that knowledge to real life situations and relate it to individuals other than your peers.