Neerja en España #16: Reflections on My Time in Spain

I can’t believe that exactly one year ago I landed in Madrid for my Fulbright orientation! So much has happened in the past year, and as cliche as it sounds, I feel like a pretty different person now than I was then. This post will shine a little light on that.

It’s funny because at the time I was leaving for Spain, I didn’t actually want to go. When I found out that I got the Fulbright, part of me was really excited and honored, but another part of me was hoping to just stay in the US with my friends and family. My Spanish was rusty and after spending the past 4 years in Hanover, New Hampshire, I felt very comfortable with my college friends, so I didn’t want to move somewhere where I knew literally no one. But a few weeks into being in Spain, that feeling started to turn around, and now I am grateful in so many ways that I had the opportunity I did to live in Zaragoza for 6 months.

Here are my reflections from my Fulbright year on a bunch of different facets.

On Spain and cultural differences

A few things about adjusting to life in Spain were particularly stressful. Spanish bureaucracy is a nightmare to deal with, especially when your Spanish is far from perfect. Getting my empadonamiento and TIE took way too long and far too much effort. Spanish food culture largely revolves around eating meat, so being vegetarian was difficult when eating at a lot of Spanish restaurants, especially with the addition of my nut allergy. The Spanish schedule is very different, and while I largely ignored the traditional schedule and worked a more regular 9-5, whenever I wanted to go out to eat with friends dinner was at 9 or later, and “going out” meant it was difficult to be home before 5 am. The sun rising absurdly late also never sat sit right with me. On the bright side, I was forced to improve my cooking skills, and I discovered some foods in Spain that I really loved - Spain does mushrooms so well. And paella is always at least pretty good. Wow, 6 months out, I actually miss some Spanish food, even though when I was in Spain I craved all the food I eat in America.

While there were some frustrations, life in Spain was mostly positive and mind-expanding! In general, I felt much less stressed in Spain, compared to undergrad. While a significant part of this had to do with not having schoolwork, it was also also in large part due to being in Spain in particular. People aren’t in a rush in Spain. They wait for other people, and want to enjoy life and make lots of time for their friends and family. Although many of my friends in Spain were a bit older than my friends back in America, it was still interesting to note that a much larger portion of my Spanish friends were in committed relationships. It just seems like people in Spain value friends and family over themselves much more. In fact, I told some of my Spanish friends that it seemed like young people here more wanted to invest in relationships, while young people in America wanted to prioritize themselves, and they told me that just the notion of “investing” in someone else is so American and representative of the capitalism engrained in our society.

Speaking of capitalism, I really appreciated the fact that in Spain, people have accepted that a place to live and healthcare and education should be human rights. It’s the norm in Spain, and many other parts in the world, to not pay exorbitant amounts of money for college or healthcare. College at the most expensive private university in Spain is under 10,000 euros a year, and on financial aid college can often be completely free and come with a stipend generous enough to cover rent, food and books. The simple fact that Spanish people don’t have to worry about healthcare or college expenses really changes people’s relationships with money, and the lack of obsession with money in Spain was very refreshing after coming from a undergrad instution where many people wanted to go work on Wall Street. In Spain, it’s completely normal for businessmen to be friends with janitors or software engineers to be friends with nail salon workers, and I loved the replacement of social stratification/classism with a general appreciation for humanity. The fact that beer is a euro on average makes going out to bars accessible to everyone, which also makes it easier for software engineers and nail salon workers to get a drink together.

On new friends

My lab was incredible. It was really nice to make some Spanish friends in Spain (which sounds weird, but meeting international people was so much easier than meeting Spainards), and I loved going to work every day and seeing my lab friends. Work was very social, since we ate lunch and took coffee breaks together every day, and also hung out on weekends or juepincho nights occasionally, and as a result I got pretty close to them. I talked the most to 3 of the guys in my building, and a lot of our conversations involved us just joking around and correcting each other’s Spanish/English (but half of the time when I corrected their English because something was phrased awkwardly they said “it’s British”), but I also gained so much from learning about their culture and approach to life and work. As a bonus, since we’re in the same field, I know with pretty high probability that I’ll see them for many more years at conferences.

Outside of the lab, I met a lot of international people in Zaragoza, through the auxiliares program (English teaching assistants funded by the Spanish government), my roommates, and through Aiko’s Spanish class. I enjoyed meeting so many different people and just seeing how many things there are to do with your life besides the paths Dartmouth students often choose. These people were from all walks of life and have gone on such cool journeys that led them to Spain, and I had a lot of fun adventures with these friends and loved getting out of the Dartmouth/research lab bubble. Just our converstaions were so different - in America, people would always start by asking me where I went to school or what I was doing professionaly, whereas here, people would start by asking me where I was from, what I thought of Spain, and other questions that felt more personal in a good way. Being around people very different from me gave me a new perspective on my own life path and decisions that I am so appreciative of.

Finally, my Fulbright friends are amazing and truly some of the most incredible people I have ever met. I went from being overwhelmed by what felt like networking at orientation to making incredibly genuine friendships with them. We had a blast exploring Spain and going to bars together, and also had wonderful deep and intellectual conversations. Everyone I met through Fulbright is so passionate, caring, kind, and doing awesome things. I’m still closely in touch with so many of my fellow Fulbrighters and I absolutely cherish those friendships.

Having a global network of friends now is amazing, though slightly painful when you’re in the country that’s handling a pandemic the worst, while your friend in New Zealand has been living a pandemic-free life for months.

On research and academic/professional benefits

There have been so many of these! While I had a wonderful time traveling and exploring and socializing, I also got some good work done, and here’s what came out of it:

  • I made wonderful connections with the lab in Spain that I had the privilege to work at. Since academia is really small, I am definitely expecting to run into them at conferences in the future, or maybe continue collaborations as I see how my research interests evolve. I still WhatsApp my labmates with random research questions, or about the tapas bars we’ll go to when I come back to Spain
  • I feel more prepared for my PhD. I got better at reading papers and synthesizing important points from them, and I had time to take online courses and read up on things I need to learn. I also learned how to swap out the GPU in a desktop which is a useful skill!
  • Focusing primarily on advanced research in a new area showed me how much knowledge exists that I don’t have yet. However, I think that realizing you have a lot to learn is an important part of the PhD process, and learning about the gaps in my knowledge meant that I could start filling them, which I did!
  • I got to do research in a completely different lab and country from undergrad, so now when I go to Berkeley I won’t see the way things are done at Berkeley as the only way to do things. It was generally great to get a different perspective on my field
  • Immersing myself in research full-time made the frustrations of research much more clear. When you’re doing research, you can spend days or weeks or months on an approach that ultimately pans out to nothing. While I had experienced this in college and knew it was a part of research, doing full time research made the extent of frustration I can feel that much clearer, but recognizing this also strengthened my ability to cope with it and showed me what to expect during my PhD
  • While I respect all research and can recognize scientific merit, I realized that I care most about research that has an immediate societal impact (espcially when I got to attend the FAT* conference), which helped me hone my research interests

On Personal Growth

I’ve definitely became more independent and comfortable with new situations, as comes with moving to a foreign country. One surprise was actually realizing that I love alone time. Before, I always thought I was extroverted, but now I think I’m equally introverted and extroverted. My alone time in Spain was a nice mix between relaxing and intentional time, where I thought about my goals and journaled. I also adored just walking around different Spanish cities and getting lost in my thoughts.

I definitely got a lot better at meeting new people and figuring out how to navigate cocktail parties or house parties where I know almost no one - I was shy before, but I actually started to enjoy those situations and always getting to know more people. Before Spain, I would often make close friends and then have fun experiences with them, but in Spain I had a lot of fun experiences with near strangers, a decent amount of who then became good friends. Now, it’s a bummer to not be able to go out and make new friends, but after the pandemic ends I’m very excited to do so again!

I was really happy with the fitness progress I was able to make in Spain. I wanted to start running for a while, but when I got to Zaragoza, I could barely run for 5 minutes. I was able to get to the point where I could run 3 straight miles, and was inspired by some of my Fulbright friends to run a 10K in the spring. I had started training when I had to go home, and it became clear that no races would be happening anywhere for a while, but it’s still great to have gotten to a point where I know I can run a race when it’s safe to again. Overall, I feel much healthier in general - it was really nice to take care of myself and actually prioritize my health, which I hope I can continue doing for the rest of my life.

I just felt (and still feel) so much healthier in every way - it was great to learn how to take care of myself, prioritize my physical and mental health, and learn how to relax. Spanish culture was exactly what I needed.


Overall, my Fulbright year (or I guess 6 months), was incredible. When I studied abroad during my junior year in Budapest, I only talked to other Americans and acted like a tourist the whole time. I knew that I did Budapest wrong, and I was ready to do Spain right. I didn’t know what “right” looked like, but I went to Spain with an attitude of opennes and spirit ready for adventure, and now looking back, my 6 months were so much more fulfilling than I ever thought my whole 9 month grant could be! I am excited to return to Spain and see my friends, but I also want to approach the rest of my life with the attitudes I honed in Spain and see where my next adventures take me.

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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