The miracle of Madrid

…when you get to know it [Madrid], it is the most Spanish of all cities, the best to live in, the finest people, month in and month out the finest climate.”

–Ernest Hemingway in “Death In The Afternoon”

There is little not to love about this city — its sloping, winding streets (or calles) lined with cafés, shops, food stands, tapas restaurants and taverns; its pretty plazas, including the central Plaza Mayor, one of the most famous city squares; its majestic cathedrals and palaces; its nightlife (Madrid doesn’t really get going until way past my typical bedtime); and, of course, its renowned museums, including the Prado, Madrid’s most important museum and one of the best, if not the best, museums in the world.

It’s easy to see why the great Hemingway — known to the Spanish as “Don Ernesto” and a passionate patron of bullfights and, ahem, bars — returned here again and again and saw fit to weave the city into so many of his famous novels and short stories. I have a feeling if we stayed here another week, we still would only scratch the surface of a city so culturally, historically and politically vibrant.

It’s also easy to envy the scores of IU students who have studied here over the last half century through the path-breaking Madrid Program, which has set an extremely high bar — as IU delegation members have learned over the last 48 hours — for immersive and inspiring study abroad that can truly change students’ lives.

A celebration for the ages

Around mid-day on Wednesday, members of the IU delegation wound their way through the center of the city and up several of Madrid’s many hills to the centerpiece activity of our trip here to Spain — a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Madrid Program. The program is also commonly referred to as the WIP Program in reference to its three main members: co-founders IU and Purdue, and the University of Wisconsin, which joined the program in 1970. The program — which provides students with the opportunity to live independently in Spain, among Spanish speakers, and to gain a deep appreciation for Spanish culture — is one of the oldest and most successful of its kind and a standard-bearer for successful study abroad within IU and across the nation.

Around 100 past and present “Wippers” (as the students affectionately call themselves) were on hand for the event, along with former resident directors representing the program’s five decades of activity, current WIP staff, IU alumni living in the region and representatives from each of the WIP schools as well as Tulane University, whose students are included as part of WIP’s enrollment.

IU President McRobbie speaks to a couple of students during the 50th anniversary celebration of IU’s study abroad program in Madrid.

For an early afternoon gathering, which included a long lunch and series of formal remarks, there was a palpable excitement in the warm afternoon air, fueled by the youthful energy and spirit of the new nattily dressed students, several of whom would participate in a graduation ceremony later that evening (more on that in a bit), as well as the happy and enthusiastic alumni, for whom the event offered an opportunity to reconnect with their former classmates and relive memories of their time in Madrid.

The spirit in the room shined brightly on several faces, but one person in particular took extra special delight in the togetherness and shared experiences of the room. “As most of you know, I have responsibility for all study abroad,” said WIP Managing Director and IU Associate Vice President for Overseas Study Kathleen Sideli in her welcoming remarks. “But as people here know, my heart is in Madrid.”

Sideli is one of the many alumni whose life “has never been the same” because of her intimate involvement with the program both as a student and as an advisor. (She was a student in the early 1970s and also served two separate stints as a graduate assistant before becoming managing director in 2003.) In her remarks, Sideli talked about arriving in Spain as a student who “didn’t know a soul” and how she quickly fell in love with the city and its people. She also paid tribute to the WIP Program and the larger consortium of U.S. universities, known as the Universidades Reunidas, for sending thousands of other students to Spain for immersive, academically rigorous and culturally challenging experiences that have prepared them to become “true global citizens,” a theme that runs throughout the meticulously prepared history of the program that she put together in advance of the golden anniversary celebration.

Addressing the current cohort of WIP students seated toward the back of the room (“You’re there because you can hear better,” Sideli joked), IU President Michael McRobbie said, “This really is a remarkable thing you have all done. And you will all look back on this as a truly life-changing experience.”

As if on cue, several former resident directors, including IU Professor Emeritus Robert Arnove and IU Associate Professor Reyes Vila-Belda, and program alumni, such as Margo Persin, an IU graduate who is now a professor emeritus at Rutgers, spoke warmly and fondly about the incredible moments they had as students here. They also talked about the strong bonds they have forged with their fellow program participants and the preparation they received that has enabled so many alumni to go on to successful careers — in academia, business, government and non-governmental organizations, and other professions.

IU President McRobbie, assisted by IU Associate Vice President for Overseas Study Kathleen Sideli, presents Maria del Carmen Castaño Collado, longtime assistant director of the WIP Program in Madrid, with IU’s distinguished international service award.

Many spoke glowingly about the lasting friendships they’ve made and the dedicated staff who supported them while in Madrid, such as Maria del Carmen Castaño Collado, longtime WIP assistant director. Judging by the popular opinion of current and former students, Mamen is a real rock star here in Madrid and the glue of the program, which made it even more special when McRobbie presented her with IU’s Distinguished International Service Award in recognition of the contributions she has made toward promoting international understanding and service.

The most inspiring part of the afternoon event, though, might’ve been seeing the 50 or so current Wippers in the room, who collectively reflect the increasing diversity of the program and student profile (nearly 30 of the students are double majors and five are triple majors!) happily interact and share common remembrances with their forebearers, for whom Facebook, text-messaging and Twitter would’ve been unfathomable when they studied here.

“You all have experienced incredible moments, many of which have been different,” Sideli said, “but you have also all experienced them in a similar way because you have experienced them here in Madrid.”

It’s safe to say that Professor Persin, a self-described “carpenter’s daughter from Cleveland” and a 1968-69 Wipper who went on to a distinguished career teaching and researching about contemporary Spanish poetry, summed up the overriding sentiment in the room best when she said of the WIP Program, “This has truly been a miracle in the making.”

A commitment to success

The pride and sky-high spirits from the afternoon celebration carried over into another ceremony held later that evening to honor graduates and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universidades Reunidas study abroad program, which the WIP Program was instrumental in initiating. (IU is the managing institution of the WIP Program, the largest provider of students to the Reunidas effort.)

The ceremony was held in the historic Facultad de Filosofía building on the campus of the Complutense University of Madrid, home to WIP and Reunidas since the start of both programs and one of the oldest universities in the world.

Ambassador Capricia Marshall served as keynote speaker for the evening celebration. An alumna of the WIP program and Purdue, she served as chief of protocol for the Obama Administration for four years. In her remarks to the graduates, which she frequently peppered with light-hearted moments from her time as a WIP student in the mid-1980s and her fond memories of Madrid’s famous culinary and beverage delights, Marshall emphasized the importance of study abroad and the impact it can have, by ensuring greater numbers of globally literate and culturally sensitive citizens, on improving international relations around the world.

IU President McRobbie further marshaled that sentiment in his remarks, telling the graduates and others gathered in attendance that IU and its institutional colleagues in the Reunidas Program have continued to send students to Madrid for more than 50 years because they believe that “student study and service abroad are essential components of a contemporary education meant to prepare students to live and work in the modern world.”

IU President McRobbie presents Carlos Andradas Heranz, rector of the Complutense University of Madrid, with IU’s Thomas Hart Benton Medallion.

McRobbie paid special tribute to the Complutense University of Madrid and the support, cooperation and goodwill it exhibited during the 1960s in openly welcoming U.S. students to Spain and integrating them into the university at a time when our nation’s activities in the international arena were controversial. This was also a time, McRobbie added, when CMU, like many other universities, faced its own internal challenges.

“Over the years, students in the program have had a remarkable opportunity to witness firsthand Spain’s transition to democracy as well as the country’s maturation as a modern, democratic nation,” McRobbie said.

McRobbie also noted the symbolism of the historic building in which the ceremony was held — the Filosofia building. The building served as a military base for the International Brigade, which included a number of American soldiers, in the battle of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), a savage conflict that split the campus in two.

“This building and the Complutense University remind us of a different past,” McRobbie said. “Indiana University — and many other great American research universities — owe a great debt of gratitude to the much older European universities, like the Complutense University, as they were highly influential in the development of American universities in their earliest days.”

To formally honor the longstanding collaboration with CMU and the benefits it has delivered to IU and all of the universities involved in the Reunidas partnership, McRobbie presented CMU Rector Carlos Andradas Heranz with IU’s Thomas Hart Benton Medallion, awarded for meritorious international service to IU or exceptional achievements worldwide.

At the end of the celebration, McRobbie and Heranz would head over to a special reception for rectors of several top Latin American universities, a clear sign that the two leaders, who also had a lengthy meeting on Tuesday afternoon, looked forward to even greater collaboration in the future.

But first it was time for the newest WIP and Reunidas graduates to take their turn in the spotlight. Watching them accept their diplomas, throw on their graduation sashes and present themselves as new alumni to an adoring crowd, we all could take enormous pride in their achievements and the hallmark programs that gave them such remarkable opportunities here in Madrid.

A pit stop at the Prado

Speaking of those opportunities … a quick word about the delegation’s morning in Madrid and what could easily be the definition of a crash course in cultural immersion — an hour-and-a-half long, “just the hits” tour of the world-renowned Prado Museum.

Statue of Francisco de Goya outside of the Prado Museum in Madrid.

8,200 drawings. 7,600 paintings. 1,000 sculptures. A who’s who of the European masters — Bosch, El Greco, Goya, Rubens, Titian, Velázquez. All are featured in Spain’s main national art museum, home to one of the world’s finest collections of European art and one of the world’s most visited cultural venues.

“If [Madrid] had nothing else than the Prado it would be worth spending a month in every spring,” Hemingway wrote.

A bright, spirited, extremely informed and — fortunately — fast-talking young woman, who is a curatorial fellow at the Prado and is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, served as our morning tour guide, leading us through a dizzying sprint through the museum’s massive galleries. While it was challenging not to stop to admire the astonishing art at every turn, we somehow managed to make it to such extraordinary masterworks as Las Meninas (The Family of Charles IV) by Velazquez, Titian’s Equestrian Portrait of Emperor Charles V at Muhlberg, Goya’s The Third of May, and the Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch. I couldn’t possibly do any of the aforementioned justice in the space I have here. I will just say that each would end up on anyone’s short list of the best paintings in the history of the world. Moreover, each is simply stunning, and when it was time, sadly, to leave the Prado, I could not keep from thinking about just how lucky our students are to be studying with such a marvel of a cultural resource in their backyard.

Click below for a video of the full commemoration ceremony for the 50th anniversary of the Universidades Reunidas. President McRobbie begins speaking at around the 46-minute mark. 

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