SLU offers alternatives abroad, beyond Madrid


Saint Louis University boasts a second campus in Madrid. Students from the home campus generally study in the spring of their sophomore year or fall of their junior year, although some exceptions may apply.

According to SLU Study Abroad Counselor Margaret Kessler, nearly 300 students from SLU are currently in Madrid for the Spring 2016 semester; more than 175 have applied for the Fall 2016 semester in Madrid. By comparison, only about 80 students have applied for non-Madrid programs for next fall. Most of these applicants are interested in Ireland, Australia and Rome, although other destinations have a smattering of applicants.

“I think Ireland’s one of our highest [programs] that we have right now; we have, like, 19 applicants for that program,” Kessler said. “Australia’s another popular one; I think we have 14 students for that one. I would say the average for all of our programs, though, is probably around two or three applicants [each], with the exception of Ireland, Australia and Rome.”

Regarding SLU Madrid’s popularity, there exists the notion—among Madrid and non-Madrid students alike—that Madrid is attractive because classmates will be along for the ride, and credits transfer directly back home. Junior Mike Michler made his decision to study in Madrid for the Fall 2015 semester. He said that going to Madrid was an easy option, “because I knew people (going there). I didn’t have to deal with any transfer stuff.”

Junior Abby Parra had an idea before coming to SLU that she wanted to study abroad, preferably in London, where she ended up for the Spring 2015 semester. She ultimately decided against Madrid “because it was the easy way to go,” although she said Madrid is known as a “phenomenal” study-abroad program.

Madrid does have some restrictions that certain majors face, for study-abroad opportunities. Engineering and nursing students, for instance, must go to Madrid if they study abroad to ensure that they will complete specific coursework at a SLU campus.“[The only study abroad option] I could do was Madrid in the spring of my sophomore year,” said junior engineering student Michael Sullivan. “If I had the option, I would have definitely looked at other places [Ireland and Italy], but I knew I could only do Madrid.”

Kessler, one of two counselors who advises non-Madrid students specifically, echoed Sullivan. “What’s great about the Madrid campus is that so many students, depending on what their major is, can study abroad there,” he said. “So our engineering and nursing students … have that opportunity.”

The Madrid campus is convenient and SLU-owned, but students did not feel that SLU unfairly promoted Madrid. Michler said he didn’t feel pushed one way or the other; and Parra said she put more pressure on herself, to try Madrid, than the Study Abroad Office ever applied.

Junior communication student Justin Seaton took advantage of his own program’s flexibility to look beyond Madrid. “I thought that I was lucky enough to have a major that was pretty loosely structured, so I wasn’t confined to just going to Madrid, which I know a lot of people were,” he said. “So I felt like I should take advantage of that.”

Seaton said that he “felt like going to Madrid was an easy way to go to another country but still be comfortable.” So Seaton sought options in a land he’d never seen but had long dreamt of: Italy. After briefly considering programs in South Korea and South Africa, he considered programs in Rome or Bologna. Due to an emphasis on social justice, he chose the northern Italian city — home to the world’s oldest university — over Rome.

Junior Emily Bley, who studied in Galway, Ireland, for the Spring 2015 semester, cited a common trait among those who study abroad, but not at Madrid: a dash of   independence. Bley said, “And that’s not to dismiss anyone that went to Madrid, that they’re not independent — but I don’t think I know anyone who went abroad to a place that wasn’t Madrid who I would not call independent.”

Parra cited her independence as a key reason for studying in London, rather than Madrid. “I knew that I didn’t want to go somewhere that a lot of SLU students were going,” Parra said. “That isn’t anything against SLU students … but I’m so independent that I kind of wanted to figure it out all by myself; I learned things about myself that I never knew.”

For Seaton, going to Bologna without the comfort of friends offered the added benefit of a deeper experience than he believes SLU’s Madrid campus could have offered.

“I’ve heard all about Madrid, and I think if I went to Madrid I would be pretty disappointed,” Seaton said. “Because I’ve already had an experience abroad that was unique and immersive, and when I came back, my only wish was that I had become more immersed. … And I think going to Madrid would give me the exact opposite experience.”

As is often true, Seaton cited his transition back home as the most difficult part of his abroad experience. Feeling depressed and shaken by having left close friends he’d spent only four months with, he came to a realization that he might never have that experience in Bologna again. But rather than dwell on it … Seaton sought out another adventure. “I think if I went abroad again, I would probably go somewhere even more remote, or go on a more immersive program.”

Experiences like Seaton’s have encouraged Kessler and the rest of the Study Abroad office to explore new programs. Over the past few years, programs in South Africa and Vietnam, among others, have been added to the University’s official offerings. However, the emergence of new programs has not led to an increase in overall study abroad applicants. “We did recently add programs in Vietnam, another program in Italy; in South Africa, we’ve also added programs,” Kessler said. “So I think students who may have gone to one program before, well, this is another great opportunity.”

From 2012 until 2016, an average of 78 students studied abroad at non-Madrid locations each spring semester. While 2012’s group of 69 students represented 16 locations, the 81 students this spring are spread across 25 unique locations. 2014 saw a record 89 students at destinations away from SLU’s Madrid campus.

Kessler contributes this trend of increased interest in studying abroad to both positive peer pressure and a generation-wide wanderlust. “When I was an undergrad in my sophomore year at SLU, there were about 90 students who went to Madrid, and that was seven years ago; and now we have … close to 300 students at the Madrid campus alone,” Kessler said. “I don’t know if it’s word-of-mouth by the students or if it’s just the idea of being abroad and being international, … but the numbers have increased immensely.”

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