Friday, March 2, 2012

Universidad Autónoma de Madrid: My Experience

Facultad de
Ciencias Económicas y Empresariales
My French class is in here.
As you know, I'm taking a French class this semester at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM).  Each time I arrive for class, I am struck by how different the UAM looks from any other university I've attended.  Even with a quick glance, it is obvious that something different is going on here.

Before launching into what I see around the UAM, te cuento un poco de mi perspectiva.  Last May, I graduated from Boston University.  In the past, I took some summer classes at Univ. Ill. at Chicago and at Northeastern Ill. Univ.  Next year, I'll be starting grad school at the University of Chicago.  My point is that while I am mostly accustomed to private, American universities (specifically BU), I also have knowledge of what some public, American universities are like.  This year, I have the opportunity to learn about life at a public, Spanish university, the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.

"No labor reform, no more social cut backs.
We won't pay for your crisis."
Arriving at the UAM's Cantoblanco campus, I step off the train with a hoard of students, and we crowd through the train station and meander to our classes.  (Yes, meander.  No rush, no hurry, no power walk.)  When I take a quick look around the UAM's campus, the first thing I often notice is the abundance of social protest posters hanging from windows, sign posts, trees, and anywhere else possible.  I'm pretty sure I've never seen anything like this at BU.  Many UAM students seem to care about the causes of these manifestaciones, and are, in some way, involved.  I'm not sure if this is typical of a Spanish university, a public university, any university, or just the UAM.  Either the students have more to protest, or they're less ambivalent, or there's some other explanation.  On any given day at the UAM, it's pretty likely that you'll see some sort of posting about a protest that will take place on campus.  Once in a while, you have to look for other doors to the buildings if there's a protest going on in the main entrance.
"In defense of public education, in solidarity with Valencia,
against the cut backs."
 Another unique feature of the UAM is its architecture.  When I first visited BU in Madrid's office at the UAM last October, I was told that the hallways were designed with many stairs in order to prevent students from stampeding through the hallways.  At first, I found it odd that the university literally had anti-riot architecture.  (Oh, those students...thinking crazy thoughts again...)  After seeing protest posters so frequently, I suppose they had good reason for adding all the stairs.  I believe the university was built toward the end of Franco's dictatorship, so I would guess that the students then were protesting just as much, if not more, than they are now.  Anti-riot architecture was probably a good call.  That said, I sometimes wonder if the buildings are handicapped-accessible.  I was also told that the university was built in a valley so that the military could surround it if the students were to riot.  Isn't that special?

BU, situated on a totally linear campus, was clearly not built with riots or stampeding students in mind.  You could run straight through CAS, or all the way down CommAve, but no one would ever do that.  At BU, we prefer to chill in Espresso Royale and look up from our laptops just long enough to see the "CommAve running man" pass by.

Well, it was a good thought...
A third difference I have noticed is that it seems common for students at the UAM to smoke cigarettes...and other things...inside the buildings.  Not kidding.  And they don't hide in the bathrooms or stairwells either.  When I walk down the hall to my class on Tuesday evenings, I typically pass two or three groups of students smoking right by their classrooms...ick!  This is the first university at which I have seen students openly smoking inside the academic buildings.

From my experience, universities are visually like health care, in that the private sector is prettier.  Private hospitals have nice waiting rooms with leather chairs everywhere, and private universities have penthouse dorms (StuVi!) and aesthetically pleasing campuses.  Ugly protest posters simply wouldn't fit in.  Public hospitals, and public universities seem to have a lot of cement and old, worn-down tiles.  I promise I'm not saying that pretty automatically equals quality.  I'm well aware that there's much more involved, but I'd rather not get into that here.  We're talking about aesthetics.

Though I feel personally detached from the manifestaciones, I have a favorite protest poster (below).  I found it in the Rectorado while I was walking around with some of our BU in Madrid students.  The poster reads, "Are you sick?  Don't go to the doctor!  You have to work!"  I understand that people want to support important institutions like education, and so they protest the cut backs.  I understand that people feel that the banks have robbed them and protest for reform.  I understand that people feel it's unjust to pay for the government's mess and financial crisis.  I have no idea what the deal with this poster is.
I think Brianna and Janet are acting out the poster.  Not quite sure.
Photo by Alec Fong
One thing I am pleased to report about the UAM, along with the other universities at which I've studied, is that many of the students are very friendly and welcoming.  This semester, I've met UAM students and Erasmus students who have come to Madrid to study.  Thanks to the opportunity BU has given me to take a class at the UAM, I have made new friends from many parts of the world.  We always enjoy comparing travel plans and chatting about how the UAM is different from our home universities on the train ride back to Madrid.

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