This site does not support Internet Explorer for Macintosh. Please use Safari, Firefox or Opera.

Program Locations

 Back to SummaryMateo Willmott - Student Advisor Profile

photo of Matthew Willmott
Stanford in Madrid, Winter 2008-09

MAJOR: History
MINOR: Spanish

ACADEMIC INTERESTS: Nationalism; Atlantic, Spanish and Latin American history; European intellectual history


Questions? Send Mateo an Email.

The circumstances that brought me to Madrid winter quarter of my sophomore year were fortuitous, perhaps even random, and yet my quarter abroad with BOSP in Madrid has fundamentally changed my Stanford experience and the way in which I view myself in the world. Studying abroad requires a bit of planning, and I had known when I arrived on campus freshman year that I had wanted to go abroad. When I applied to the Madrid program, I knew of the country’s rich cultural heritage and distinct history, but I wasn’t particularly as aware of the profound impact that this fascinating place would have on my academic and intellectual interests.

...soon became clear to me that the cultural differences between Spaniards and Americans ran much deeper, and revealed rich information about what it means to come from a different country.

Arriving in the capital of Spain is like stepping into a different world: the sights, sounds, architecture, people, and language immediately strike one as exciting, perhaps exotic, but most definitely foreign. Indeed, it is this experience, of being an outsider, that really fomented in me new ideas not only about Spain, Europe, and the rest of the world, but about my place in that very same world as a global citizen, an American, a Chicagoan, and a Stanford student. The most lasting lessons I learned from my time in Madrid were not only about Spain and Spanish culture, but about me, about my own personal growth, and about discovering new and profound ways of interacting with people and cultures around the world.


Probably most rewarding about my quarter abroad in Madrid was the almost tautological connection between classroom and “non-classroom” experiences that I had. Every concept, idea, or phenomenon that I learned of in a Stanford course related directly to my conversations over the dinner table, my experience meeting Spaniards, and the news stories I read in El País on my commute to class in the morning. Madrid became my classroom, its streets a chalkboard, its residents the dizzyingly colorful ideas, stories, and images that made up my academic experience abroad. Every moment both at the Instituto Internacional, where my courses were held, and the city outside was ripe with opportunity. If education is a series of “aha!” moments, my mind was shouting it every minute as I engaged with Spanish culture, people, and the Spanish language. The slang words I heard in the metro were the same as the colloquialisms that we discussed in my Spanish class. The giant Spanish flag in the Plaza de Colón that I often walked by, I soon realized, was at the heart of an intellectual battle about hispanism and its role in Spanish public discourse that we touched on in a history course. The questions of democracy and dictatorship that we discussed in my political science course became infinitely more real as I spoke with my host mother during la comida (the large Spanish lunch normally consumed at around 14:00) about her experience living under the rule of Francisco Franco. In short, every moment, every thought, every lesson was connected not only to the classroom, but also to the everyday experience of living life in the Spanish capital.

My quarter in Spain opened my eyes up to the brilliant realities of a people deeply engaged in a history that implicates Europe, Africa, the Americas, and even Asia.

Living and learning, too, in one of Europe’s largest and most vibrant cities is as fun as it is educational. The walk from my homestay, where I lived with Estela, my host mother, David, my host brother, and Jerome, a fellow Stanford student (and Maggie, Estela and David’s thirteen year old dog), to the Stanford center cut through a diverse swath of the city’s neighborhoods. As I descended from Alfonso XIII, I passed neighborhood churches, modern housing developments, local shops, and traveled down smaller streets that gave way to older, more established ornate buildings, with business men whirring around on scooters and motorcycles. I crossed the Castellana, a massive avenue and the heart of Madrid’s business district, to arrive at the orange-brick building of the Institute. From there, I could continue down Miguel Ángel to Fuencarral, past trendy shops and down chic pedestrian passages until I arrived at Sol, Plaza Mayor, and the royal palace. These physical spaces mark the versatility of new and old Madrid. Centuries old structures contrast with newly renovated marketplaces: Madrid is a city comfortable with the presence of old and new. Indeed, one need not look beyond the city’s fabulous museums (the Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen, to name a few extremely famous ones) to realize that it would take many a lifetime to fully experience the breadth and depth of cultural richness that define Madrid. Needless to say, having a cortado in a coffee shop in Chueca or jogging in Madrid’s version of Central Park, El Retiro, was as much an exciting, fresh, and vibrant experience as reading a text for class as the hyper modern Madrid Metro whizzed through station after station on my way home after a long day of exploring in the city.

As both the political and geographic center of Spain, Madrid attracts Spaniards from all corners of the country, creating an extremely tantalizing microcosm of the plurality of Spain’s distinct regions. Nevertheless, as a student of history, I reveled in the fact that extremely significant cities like Toledo, Segovia, Ávila, and Ciudad Real were all easily within a day trip’s distance of Madrid. Madrid’s centrality, too, offers ample opportunities for the Stanford program to allow students to explore the endless diversity of Spanish identities. From our visits to a variety of Moorish landmarks in the cities of Granada, Córdoba, and Sevilla in Andalucía, to our study of the Spanish love of jamón (cured Spanish ham that has even this [former] vegetarian convinced that pork may even be more than "the other white meat") and Roman architecture in rural Extremadura, I learned of the profound diversity that makes Spain such an exciting and interesting place to live and study.

Study abroad in Madrid was not without its particular challenges: the Spanish Only Pledge is a terrific example of how studying in Madrid with BOSP is an experience that requires effort and risk, but likewise rewards with ample excitement and an endless array of meaningful lessons. I will never forget the embarrassment I experienced during my first few weeks in Madrid, as I realized that my Spanish education in Middle and Upper school hadn’t prepared me for the constant use of vosotros conjugation or the never-ending set of Castilian phrases and interjections that my host-brother effortlessly uttered during our dinnertime conversations. That said, I will also never forget the first set of dreams I had entirely in Spanish, or the surprised faces of my madrileño friends as I rattled off rapidly improving castellano. Nor will I forget the angry hostel mates I met over Spring Break, who bitterly reported that I had kept them awake while sleep-talking in Spanish. It is these moments, of immersion, self-development, risk-taking, and profound cultural interchange, that I remember most about my time in Madrid. My Stanford career--and my life more generally--is indelibly marked by the growth and appreciation for my own and others’ perspectives that blossomed with my decision to study abroad in Madrid.


Top of page