Honors Students away from campus for study abroad, co-ops, or internships are encouraged to write about their experiences to share them with the Honors community.
By Daniel Garcia
Deciding to Study Abroad
Before deciding on going Barcelona to study abroad for architecture, I have to admit that I had mixed feelings. It seems crazy to think that someone would doubt being able to go and learn in such an incredible city, especially for architecture. Looking back, I find that I was always focusing on the wrong things such as the price, being so far away from home for the first time, and of course, being in another country that I am completely unfamiliar with. There were so many of these little factors that made me nervous about the whole idea. Luckily, I had support from friends and professors who helped me think of these factors not as things to worry about but be excited about. The main idea that I got was that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will most likely never have a chance to experience the same way again.
Now that I have returned from Barcelona, I can honestly say that this is a fact. Of course anyone can go on vacation to visit cities like Barcelona, but that does not compare to actually living there. On the other end, you can move and live in a city like Barcelona as an adult, but then you have a lot more responsibilities for yourself. You have to work and pay bills, which ultimately, does not give you the free time you have when studying abroad. That is why the only way to have this mixture of tourist and local experience is to study abroad for an extended time. For those people that say, “Oh, I can always go visit that city when I am older,” that is simply an excuse that is only going to make you miss out on an opportunity to study abroad.
After deciding to study abroad, my next focus was working on paying for the cost. Although many people think they are going to have to take out large quantities of loans, this is not necessarily the case. If you actually do your research you will find that there are many scholarship sources that can help finance a study abroad experience. The first thing I did was looked at my existing scholarships to see if any would offer more money if I was studying abroad, which one actually did! All I had to do was fill out a form to prove I was studying abroad and the money was mine! Also, I applied for scholarship from the university, study abroad office, the College of Architecture, the Department of Architecture, and even my local architecture chapter at home. There is never an absolute guarantee that you will get money from applying, but if you don’t give yourself a chance, you are possibly missing out on thousands of dollars to help fund your education.
Another thing that I believe is beneficial is studying abroad during the best season for the location you are studying in. For me personally, studying in Barcelona in the fall was best. The city has beautiful weather in the fall and early winter which isn’t too cold, which is perfect for me.
After everything was set for my study abroad in Barcelona at the Barcelona Architecture Center, I anxiously awaited the day I flew out. All summer I had been working at a local architecture firm in south Texas, saving up money for the “oh so expensive” but “oh so worth it” study abroad I have been hearing about since my new student conference at A&M. At around this time in early August, I had so many things running through my mind. Of course, the excitement of what was to come; the unknown that kept drawing me closer; and the idea that I would soon be face to face with some of the best architectural designs that I had only seen in books and lectures. The beauty of going to Europe in general to study a field in the art, architecture, and design is that compared to the United States, Europe has a much longer history of which these practices have been able to flourish.
My entire life has been pretty sheltered up to this point in my life. I have never actually traveled anywhere, not even the U.S. besides a few places in Texas. There was the two weeks in Las Vegas, but that was for a basketball tournament when I was sixteen. Now, I was going to one of the largest cities in the world, by population at least, and living there for three and a half months! The idea of it was still mildly horrifying at the time, but I would try not to psyche myself out. After all, I was going with a group of friends, and one of which who is my girlfriend. Also, I knew this was an opportunity to finally practice Spanish, although in Barcelona Catalan (mix of French and Spanish) is the dominant language. Something I was not sure of at this point was how adventurous I would be. I knew that I wanted to explore and expose myself to new things, but I also knew that I am not one to take risks or be the most outgoing when I am not comfortable with my surroundings. Little did I know that I would be more comfortable in Barcelona at times than I do at home.
My friends and I had all been warned of the dangers of the big city by this time. The area where we were going to live in was one of the oldest neighborhoods and the poorest neighborhood in Barcelona, El Raval. It was once a drug and prostitution ridden barrio that had undergone a major reconstruction to revive the neighborhood. Old buildings were demolished, new five star hotels were built, and student residences were put in to bring new life. This of course didn’t imply that there were going to be no danger. The area is in such a touristic location that it is teaming with pickpockets waiting for unsuspecting tourist to cross their path. We were prepped on the behavior to avoid being targets and stand out less. Although our group would later find out that there were consequences to not acting responsibly when walking to streets of Barcelona. Despite the fears of the city, nothing could overshadow the pure excitement and anticipation for the journey to come, and the joy of getting to experience it with my girlfriend.
Life in Barcelona
Upon arriving in Barcelona, I felt as if I had put my life back at home on pause and started a new life in Spain. My first impression was that life in Barcelona was fast paced and lively like any big city, but it is funny how that changed once I transition from a tourist perspective to a local perspective. When being a tourist and visiting museums, architecture, and parks, you tend to always be doing something or going towards the next thing you are going to do. Obviously this is the logical thing to do if you have a short period of time to see many things; however, after adjusting to the lifestyle and settling in, all that slowly changed. From the local perspective, time moves slower than normal (at least what is normal to me).
Everything from school, eating, and going out would start later. I would show up promptly or a little early for my 9:30 a.m. class and end up waiting half an hour before our professors arrived. This of course was more than welcomed and before I knew it, I too started showing up half an hour late (or on time depending on how you look at it). One of the most enjoyable things about class was that we got to take breaks and go to the nearby local cafés to get a snack. At first I thought that I would not get as much work done by taking half hour to forty-five minute breaks, but I found that once I returned back and started working, I was much more efficient and able to think of new ideas easier. I guess that in architecture, you can’t always sit and solve the problem, sometimes you have to distract yourself and let the solution come to you.
By night, the city would transform into a completely different world. Tourists and locals would pack the streets and subways, making their way to dinner (which is anywhere from 8-11 p.m.), followed by going out even later to go to the clubs and bars. People would usually go out around midnight and stay out until five or six when the clubs would close. This of course blew my mind since every club or bar I have been to closes at two. If there is one thing that the Spanish know how to do, is party till the morning. When I would have to leave my dorm at five in the morning to get to the airport, I would still see people out on the streets barely finishing up their night out.
As much as the culture of Barcelona was different to me, I have to admit I became quite accustomed to it. It was such a relaxed environment to live in, especially since I didn’t have to drive and everything I needed was within walking distance. I know I will always think back to those times where I could sit at a café with my girlfriend, drinking café con leches and eating lomo con queso bocadillos, enjoying the little things.
Architecture in Europe
One of the best things about studying abroad in Europe for me was being able to see some of the best architecture in the world. When I would be standing in front places like the Sagrada Familia, the Coliseum, and the Eiffel Tower, or even modern buildings such as the Eye, De Rotterdam, and the Maxxi Museum, I would feel so humbled and honored. To think of the history and future that these structures have and will make is such a profound sensation that no amount of pictures or words could come close to making one understand their significance and beauty of their architecture. Despite anyone’s opinion on their design or intent, no one can deny the power that these buildings command every time a pair of eyes gazes upon them. At this point it is easy for me to feel humbled knowing that I am only a 3rd year architecture student, but at the same time, I feel honored to be pursuing the same profession that has the ability to make such marvels a reality for all to experience.
That being said, there is a great respect for architects in Europe, especially in Barcelona. At a time in its history, the most important person in Barcelona besides the Mayor was the Master Architect. Above that, most influential architects were highly involved in politics. This tradition of respect is still maintained in Barcelona today. Even more so, the passion of the architect’s burns with the same flame as it always has. During my study, I got to learn from practicing architects who are well known for their architectural projects. Our Director, Miguel Roldan, just recently finished his latest building that will be the headquarters for the economists of Catalunya. I was able to talk with all my professors one on one to learn about their careers and lives as architects. They would speak with such emotion, understanding that they have the responsibility to the people of Barcelona to ensure that each project caters to all those that will be affected by it. This way of thinking is what makes me believe that being an architect means that one has the civic duty to make the best impact they can on their projects to benefit the people that will occupy the space.
The sad truth about architecture today, especially in the U.S., is that this idea of architecture for the people is not always practiced. Politics and money are always factors that are inhibiting the possibilities of great architectural structures and spaces to be created. I always think that this is a result of the U.S. being so business oriented with so many of its decisions. I begin to wonder if this idea is economically feasible. After all, the U.S. is much better off economically than Spain. Perhaps it is the private investors who have the money to fund such projects who demand things be done as low-cost and fast as possible. Honestly, I do not know the answers, and I am not educated enough on the subject to have a credible opinion. I hope one day I will so that I can impact as many lives as I can in a positive way.
When I came home, I have to say that I was elated to be back in good ole Texas. Not that I was tired of Spain or anything, I just missed my family. Immediately after being back a few days, I couldn’t help but notice the reverse culture shock that I was experiencing. For one, I was so happy to be able to get refills on my drink at a restaurant instead of a small soda can or water bottle. Also, I didn’t realize how big the servings were at home compared to Spain. Another big thing was driving again. I hadn’t driven all semester which I thought I wouldn’t like, but it was actually really enjoyable to walk and take subways everywhere. It was a nice feeling though when I was able to get back in my car and jam to music while driving places. One of the biggest things for me was realizing how much value you get for your money in the U.S. after having to convert dollars to Euros for an entire semester. I can get a meal twice the size and half the price that I could get in Europe.
I realize that all these factors may seem like the U.S. is better than Spain, but there were a considerable amount of things I missed about my life in Barcelona. The most prevalent one is the laid back culture of the people. The environment was so relaxed that I hardly would ever get stressed out. Also, walking everywhere really gives you a chance to enjoy the city as you go from destination to destination. A lot of walking and smaller portions (there are exceptions though) means that the people of Barcelona were a lot healthier than people back home. There were not many overweight people which also has to do with the many markets in the city that provide fresh foods without preservatives and other added contents. After using metros to get everywhere in the city and trains to get from city to city, I feel like Texas is so behind in transportation. Especially in big cities where metros or trams have the population that will utilize them, it is honestly quite pathetic that people have to drive so much in these cities. Also, the fact that there isn’t a train that links all the major areas of Texas is also ridiculous. I realize that many people probably are for this, but the politics of Texas have never been the most logical or efficient.
Despite the many things I miss about each country, I can now say that I had the courage to go outside my comfort zone, integrate into another culture, and come back to my own a better well-rounded individual. My goal now is to take what I learned in architecture in Barcelona and apply it to what I have learned at Texas A&M, so that one day I can implement the principles I have learned from both to design great architecture for the public.