Summer in Madrid program transforms students

Cornell students in Madrid
Cornell students in Spain for the six-week summer in Madrid program.

Every year at the end of May, a group of Cornell students sets off for Spain with Cornell professors for the six-week Summer in Madrid program.

At the end of the program, the changes in the students are tangible, say students and professors. Some students decide to major or minor in Spanish; some are amazed by European history after traveling outside the U.S. for the first time; all of them come back with more confidence, knowing that they can make their way in a Spanish-speaking country.

“I wanted to take the classes so that I would feel comfortable working with people from a Spanish-speaking country or even live someday in a Spanish-speaking country,” said Logan Altheim ’20, an ILR School student. “In my Cornell Spanish classes, there’s more pressure when you’re speaking because you don’t want to make mistakes. But here you’re speaking Spanish all of the time, with professors and with friends who are practicing their English.”

Constant language immersion helps students make measurable progress after only six weeks, said Cecelia Lawless, the program director and a senior lecturer in the Department of Romance Studies. Other faculty include Alisa Linarejos Jimenez, a lecturer in the Department of Romance Studies, and Jon Synder, an adjunct professor of Spanish literary and cultural studies in Madrid.

“Classes really begin every morning when I’m having breakfast with my abuela [grandmother],” said Jeremiah Grant ’17, an Africana studies major in the College of Arts and Sciences. Each student lives with a host family.

Along with eight credits of classwork, the 18 Cornell students took part in weekly field trips to cultural, historic or architecturally significant sites. Classes were held at the Instituto Internacional Americano in Madrid, which hosts students from U.S. universities and offers English courses to a mix of American and Spanish students.

students in Madrid
Students in Madrid.

On their forays outside of the classroom, students discovered the residents of Madrid were kind and understanding as they practiced their language skills.

“They understand that we’re learning a language,” said Lauren Wong ’18, a student in the College of Arts and Sciences. “When I was talking with a local artisan, he would say something really fast, but then he would repeat it slowly.”

Along with a focus on improving their Spanish speaking and writing skills, many students take a course on Spanish culture and history that offers a broad introduction to Iberian cultures from the Middle Ages to the present.

The trips parallel what students are studying in class, Lawless said, adding that even the novels and plays they read and discuss have ties to the city. Students leave the classroom and visit a novel’s setting or go see a flamenco dance concert to experience what they’ve read about.

They also see firsthand how Madrid has transformed from a under a right-wing government into a capital known for citizen involvement and progressive thought, Lawless said.

“We’re able to explore in the here and now the underlying political, psychological and architectural threads of the city, rather than just undertake a strictly grammar course,” she said.

Dylan Majsiak ’20 said the experience has been one of “transformation into a global citizen. I had such a limited perspective for so long.” Classes ended July 6, but some students stayed a few extra weeks to travel around the country.

“The real objective of the program is not the learning of the verb form or the learning of the Arabic influences, it’s about the confidence,” Lawless said. “After six weeks here, the students realize, ‘Wow, I can do this. I can speak Spanish.’ They are finding out who they are and gaining confidence that they can do the things they want to do. That’s fantastic for me to watch.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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