Why I Enjoyed Studying Abroad in a Smaller City

By: Samantha Probelsky

When it came time to decide on a study abroad program, the exact location within Spain of my studies was not one of my biggest deciding factors. I was looking at homestay opportunities, excursions, and classes offered and I knew Spain was where I wanted to study but I was open to the exact location. 

As more of a city girl, I most definitely would have jumped at the opportunity to stay in a large city like Madrid or Barcelona but with other criteria that contributed to my decision, I ended up choosing a program in a smaller city about 30 minutes outside of Madrid called Alcalá de Henares. It ended up being one of the best things to happen and I came to love the city I now call my second home! For students who may be considering different programs with different-sized cities, I am going to explain why I loved my smaller city experience so much and what things you may consider if the exact location of your study abroad experience is a large focus of yours!

garden spain alcala

1. Speaking Spanish
With my main goal when studying abroad being to improve my Spanish interpersonal skills, the opportunity to speak Spanish as much as possible was a challenging but very important aspect of my study abroad experience. In the smaller city of Alcalá de Henares, almost everyone exclusively speaks Spanish. 

As mentioned previously, it is challenging to do but this was so important for me to practice my speaking skills when interacting with others in stores, restaurants, and out and about otherwise. While my Spanish is not perfect, many, if not all of the people that I interacted with in Alcalá were kind and willing to help me navigate discussions. 

Throughout my travels to many other cities of Spain including Madrid, Barcelona, Cordoba, Sevilla, and Granada, I also met many people who would kindly quiz me or encourage my Spanish speaking with great patience but it rarely was the only option when I traveled outside of Alcalá de Henares. It wasn’t until I traveled to Madrid and had waiters and store employees assume English would be more preferred for me based on my accent or choppy speaking at times that I realized living in Acalá where Spanish was the only option was so important for my study abroad goal of improving my Spanish speaking. That is not to say that other cities are less wonderful or valuable to an amazing study abroad experience, just that there are, at times, differences in the language usage in different cities. 

alcala food plate

2. Community 
When considering the community of the city you are studying abroad in, the size of the city can matter! In my experience, studying abroad in a smaller city versus one of the largest cities in Spain was incredible for my sense of community. Shortly after siesta time (which was taken very seriously in Alcalá) or dinner time, it felt as if the entire city was coming out to meet in the main plaza, Plaza de Cervantes. It didn’t matter who you were, young or older, I saw everyone meeting in the plaza at night to spend time with each other and appreciate the beauty of the city. 

I also noticed this in Madrid when visiting, especially in Puerta de Sol, but the city atmosphere was always maintained in Madrid, creating a unique environment in itself. Both were beautiful and it always made me happy to see people simply sitting together outside in the cool afternoon just because they could. There was a peace that came with the act of spending time just resting in the plaza that made Madrid, but especially Alcalá feel like home to me.

alcala spain books

In a smaller city, it also seemed easier for me to feel as if I was truly becoming a part of the community day by day. Whether it was my peaceful walks to class in the morning or getting tapas with my friends and a beautiful view of Colegio Mayor de San Ildefonso in the background, Alcalá felt like a warm hug to me - safe, historic, and filled with community. While I adore the energy that fills a big city like Madrid, it felt more challenging for me to find a homey feeling with the hustle and bustle of the entire community. That hustle and bustle brings a different type of love to the city itself which I think is so important to consider when deciding between a smaller city versus a larger city.

Overall, you can’t go wrong with wherever you choose to study abroad. Especially with CIEE, the programs are curated to support your entire study abroad process no matter what type of city you stay in! From providing events and office hours with CIEE staff to providing transportation cards and recommending travel places in your community, CIEE works hard to set up students for success whether you stay in a small or large city. As I mentioned in the beginning, I could never have imagined not staying in a city as large as Madrid before my study abroad but after experiencing the beauty of Alcalá de Henares, I am so grateful for the smaller city study abroad experience I was lucky enough to have. I hope with this perspective, you consider all the programs CIEE offers in both the exciting and buzzing larger cities as well as the quiet and character-filled smaller cities. Know that no matter where you choose to study, I am confident you will have the most amazing experience studying abroad!