A rigorous and rewarding study abroad experience

Complutesne University of Madrid Rector's Office After touching down early in the morning in Madrid, members of IU’s delegation, including IU President Michael McRobbie and Vice President for International Affairs David Zaret, wasted little time in getting acquainted with the history of the university’s hallmark study abroad program here in the political, economic and cultural center of Spain.

Wednesday will mark a formal celebration of the golden anniversary of IU’s Madrid Program and recognition of the consortium of U.S. universities, known as the Universidades Reunidas, that has enabled thousands of students to study abroad in Spain’s capital and largest city. During the festivities, which include a reunion event and graduation ceremony, many of those students will be reunited with their old classmates and resident directors and also have an opportunity to interact with current participants in the program.

Tuesday, though, was mostly a day for learning about what it takes to be a successful university study abroad program, the talented and dedicated people who make it work and the remarkable place that has provided IU students in Spain with a home away from home that few universities around the world can rival in terms of age, academic prestige and endurance in the most challenging of circumstances.

As recounted in a wonderfully detailed history compiled by IU’s longtime overseer of overseas study (and proud Madrid Program alumna) Kathleen Sideli, IU’s Madrid Program began in 1965-66 as a partnership between IU and Purdue University to provide a year-long study abroad experience for advanced students of Spanish. Within a year, the initiative spawned a wider consortium, the Universidades Reunidas, which collected the resources of several U.S. institutions and contracted with the University of Madrid (now the Complutense University of Madrid) for special courses and office space. In 1970, the University of Wisconsin joined IU and Purdue in the consortium, which today is often known as the WIP (Wisconsin-Indiana-Purdue) Program.

From its modest beginnings, the program paired students with many of the most preeminent Spanish scholars, including renowned poets, philosophers and historians, while also setting a standard — of immersive and impactful learning and a close relationship with the program’s host institution — that has defined IU’s overseas study efforts for the last half century.

Merle Simmons, a professor of Spanish and folklore who oversaw IU’s study abroad programs in Peru and Mexico at the time and who was then chair of IU’s Foreign Study Committee, was instrumental in the founding of the Madrid Program. In 1966, he wrote a letter to a colleague that addressed the type of rigorous and rewarding program he and others hoped to establish in Madrid and that still resonates in the program today.

“Our basic position … is that we are not setting up a program for ordinary students,” Simmons wrote. “Unless we can operate a program for truly outstanding students in Madrid, we prefer to operate none at all. We are going on the assumption that students in the Purdue-IU group should consider themselves something special and should expect to do more than is normally expected of ordinary students, even those of other programs in Madrid. I should like for word to get around the IU campus that our foreign study programs are very demanding in every way but that the rewards of participating are great.”

“This is a very serious academic program,” says Melissa Dinverno, an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese in IU Bloomington’s College of Arts and Sciences who is serving as the 2016-17 resident director of the Madrid/WIP Program. “We want this to be a challenging program, and we also want the best students to come here.”

On Tuesday afternoon, IU delegation members met up with Dinverno and two of her colleagues who provide hands-on, on-the-ground personal and academic support for the program in Madrid, which IU has managed for the last two decades. The program currently includes more than a dozen IU students who are here for a full year of academic study. More and more students are entering the program with double or triple majors, Dinverno says, and while most will study Spanish language, literature, culture and history, increasingly they are arriving with academic interests in areas such as media communications, informatics and, in the case of one student last year, astrophysics.

IU delegation members pose for a picture with Madrid Program staff.

Dinverno and her colleagues will help guide students through the process of aligning their personal goals with their academic course work. They’ll also set students on a self-guided housing search, which for several years now has been a core component the Madrid Program. As a requirement of the program, after two weeks of dormitory living, students are responsible for choosing their own housing in Madrid. Most select apartments or homes that are anywhere from 20-40 minutes from the university, and nearly all of the students will wind up living with people who speak Spanish as their primary language. “Once we said to our students, ‘You pick your home and your neighborhood,’ this was a major move forward for our program,” Sideli says. “Today it’s what our students often feel the proudest about.”

For its entire existence, the Madrid Program has been based at the main campus of the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain’s most prestigious university and one of the oldest universities in the world with its origins dating back to the late 13th century. With a student body totaling more than 86,000 students, CMU has played a major role in the academic and political development of Spain, and its impressive roster of alumni includes many of Spain’s most renowned and respected philosophers, writers, historians, government and military leaders, and scientists.

On Tuesday, CMU Rector Carlos Andradas Heranz welcomed members of IU’s delegation to his office in the heart of campus for a conversation that allowed President McRobbie to express the university’s gratitude toward CMU for its “generous and visionary commitment” to supporting IU’s study abroad efforts in Spain. During the meeting, the leaders of both institutions also talked about their shared interest in further strengthening their respective schools’ international engagement efforts — including sending more students abroad for overseas study, enabling more faculty to pursue scholarly and research collaborations with their peers at top universities around the world and strengthening connections with international alumni. For his part, McRobbie discussed IU working to expand its presence in Europe through the IU Europe Gateway office in Berlin, launched in 2015 to increase the visibility and impact within the region of IU’s academic and research activities.

Members of IU’s delegation meet with Complutense University of Madrid Rector Carlos Andradas Heranz.

Following the meeting with the rector and at the close of a busy first full day in Madrid, delegation members were given a brief tour of the CMU campus, which highlighted just how extraordinary a learning environment the campus is for the IU students who study here.

CMU’s history includes, among other notable milestones, becoming one of the greatest centers of academic excellence in the world during the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was home to many of the leading scholars and thinkers of those time periods; becoming one of the first universities in the world to grant a doctorate to a female student; and awarding a Doctor of Science degree Honoris Causa to Albert Einstein, the first such degree Einstein accepted from a European university.

At the time of the bloody Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the campus was the front for much intense fighting between the Republicans and the rebel Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, who would rule Spain for 36 years, from 1939 to his death in 1975. During the fierce conflict, the campus was essentially divided in two and carved up by multiple military trenches. Ultimately many of the buildings that had been constructed in the seven years leading up to the war were completely destroyed. This included the campus’ Facultad de Filosofía, where part of tomorrow’s 50th anniversary celebration will be held and where the Madrid Program offices were once located. With the war raging, the building housed members of the International Brigade, the group of foreign volunteer soldiers from about 50 countries, including the U.S., who fought on the Republican side against the Nationalist forces.

The Filosofia Building at the Complutense University of Madrid.

After the war, the original buildings, like the Filosofia building and the Facultad de Medicina, which delegation members also toured, were repaired or rebuilt, and several new buildings were added, including a number distinctly developed in the modern architectural style of some major U.S. universities. The original buildings still carry battlefield markings, such as bullet holes, that one can’t help but view as a reflection of the university’s remarkable resilience.

Today’s meetings and tour offered an opportunity to consider the profound impact of IU’s Madrid Program over the last half century and the historic partner that has greatly contributed to its success. As we drove away from the CMU campus, it was difficult not to look forward to Wednesday’s formal celebration of that collaboration and meeting the many alumni and others who have made the program a shining example of IU’s longstanding emphasis on meaningful and enlightening study abroad in the most historically, economically, politically and culturally important cities of the world.

A model representation of the devastation endured by the Complutense University of Madrid campus during the Spanish Civil War.

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