A Glimpse of Culture From the Eyes of an Engineer

A Glimpse of Culture From the Eyes of an Engineer

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The 8:50 a.m. bell rings. Thirty faces look up at the board.
"The Refrigeration cycle begins with refrigerant R-134a proceeding to ..."
Most pencils are hard at work, taking diligent notes. Some students stare into the board, attempting to imprint the entire schematic of the Refrigeration cycle into their memories. Others take a shot of Mountain Dew to clear the mental passages, or wake up from the previous evening. Concentration levels run high, as we all endeavor to excel at what we have been doing for the last several years -- pursuing an engineering degree.
Each student in that Thermodynamics classroom had by this point in his or her undergraduate engineering career settled comfortably into the American engineering lifestyle. We had all gone through Statics as freshman, struggled with Dynamics as sophomores, and went on to tackle the curriculum that lay ahead. Gradually many of us became involved in campus organizations or committees. We bought organizer calendars, and watched the days fill up with meetings and activities that quenched our thirst for involvement and drove us to achieve in and out of the classroom. We dove into the crazy, driven and exciting pace of life at a very reputable Big Ten University, ready to reap all of the benefits that an undergraduate degree has to offer.

As one of the thirty students in that very classroom, I had come to know this lifestyle well. To me it was the best and most intense of all worlds that I had seen up to that point in life, and it was the most satisfying. Yet being comfortable in the realm of undergraduate engineering arose in me a curiosity about other worlds. The curiosity developed into an urge to deviate from the well-founded path, and risk stepping into a complete unknown.

The wheels began to turn, the plans formed, and several semesters later I was sitting in a somewhat different classroom.

The students numbered around 60. They sat at long desks, ten seats in a row, elbow to elbow. Their style of dress was similar to what I knew, though there was not a baseball cap to be found on top of anyone's brow. They sat attentively, pens in hand, paper ready for taking serious notes. The professor stood before the room, waiting as stragglers walked in. No bell rang to signify the start of class. When enough stragglers had made it in, the professor walked over to the door and shut it.

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In a leisurely manner he moved to the front of the room once more, and began to lecture.
"La ganga se forma en el escorial del horno alto..."

The class was Metallurgy, the setting was La Escuela Superior de Ingenieros Industriales (The Superior School of Engineering) of Madrid, Spain. From being one of the thousands at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I went to being one of two Americans in a top Spanish engineering university. I was embarking upon an adventure that would make significant waves in my conservative view of life.

When I arrived in Madrid as an exchange student, I expected to perfect my grasp of the Spanish language, to try new food, to meet people, and to bring home many souvenirs. What I brought home instead was an array of ideas that challenged my priorities and attitude. By stepping through the doorway of a completely different culture, I met a nation which sees life as a balance between work and play, with an emphasis on the play. As I gradually learned the faces of the Spanish society, I saw the many wonderful results of this approach to life, as well as some aspects that leave much to be desired. Through the city streets of Madrid and the people who fill them, the lessons of Spanish life unfolded before me.

The University Life

The first lesson was to be found in the university system. Coming from the very intense pace of the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering, some basic aspects of engineering school in Madrid shocked me. Before I had time to learn the fundamentals of the system, the most obvious contrast jumped out at me -- no homework and no mid-term exams. All grades depend on final exams. To an exchange student struggling to grasp the language, this was a pleasant surprise. Gradually, friends and professors explained to me the many details of the system, and soon I had the whole picture.

An engineering undergraduate degree in Spain takes six years, in theory. In practice, seven or eight are more common. The emphasis of the engineering education is theory. Practical application of engineering concepts holds little space in the curriculum. Lack of time often prevents professors from teaching practical problem solving in class. And the idea of homework does not fit into the mind set of a Spanish university. Professors do not want to take the time to correct homework problems, and students do not want to take the time to solve them. Exam material, however, is usually split evenly between theory and practical problems. Consequently, students tend to fail at least half of their finals.
To offset complete failure, students receive up to three opportunities to retake the exams. If that does not help, the class must be taken again. Repeating failed classes accounts for the extra years of their undergraduate experience.

This academic structure creates a fairly relaxed student life. A typical school morning begins with breakfast in the cafeteria with friends. Mid-day brings everyone together again for a long lunch followed by conversation over coffee. Some then return to class or labs, while others head home. Going out on weeknights is common among the students; going out on weekends is unquestioned second nature. This routine lasts for the four exam-free months of each semester. During exam time the stress levels do rise, but a month of studying allows ample time to pace oneself.

The university served as a perfect model of what I would discover in most facets of Spanish society. On one hand, its design provides an education that I as an American student found less effective than our own. Since their education is based on a less intense work ethic than Americans are accustomed to, Spanish students spend seven to eight years earning a degree that may be not be better than our four-year diploma. The Spanish university does not provide nearly as many extra curricular activities as an American university offers. Also, professors do not put forth the same long hours of research as do American professors. As a result, Spanish universities are not able to fund vast resources such as computer facilities or cutting-edge laboratories.

On the other hand, there is a unique aspect of the student atmosphere that results from their educational system. The years Spanish students spend in engineering school contain less stress and more enjoyment than most American engineering students could fathom. Competition is scarce. The Spanish take their academic successes with great excitement, and their failures with calm acceptance. Through it all they form close bonds with one another that supersede academic pursuits.

The Lifestyle

The lesson of school was a reflection of a much larger lesson that I was to learn about the drastic underlying differences between the Spanish lifestyle and the American one. They are subtle differences which may not jump out at a visitor walking down the streets of Madrid. At first glance, the basic elements of life seem fairly similar to the American scene. Certainly the cars are smaller, the streets are more crowded, and the air of the Spanish has its own style. But in a large city like Madrid, everyone appears to follow a routine much as we do. The Spanish go to work in massive office buildings, attend school in large universities, dress very well, and even slip an occasional McDonald's and Pizza Hut into their streets. It takes some time and interaction to realize that it is neither the small cars nor the delicious Spanish cuisine that make their society innately different from ours. It is the attitude, the philosophy of life that separates us.

The people I met worked, yet really put a great importance on enjoying life. The long conversations during school days, and the weekend nights of music and dancing (that often ended with breakfast at sunrise) reflect the love of life that transcends every part of Spanish society.

The subtle details of the city atmosphere echo the same message. There is not a street in Madrid that does not have a sidewalk on each side. Most are lined with cafes, shops, restaurants and bars. At any hour of the day one can find customers in any cafe, sipping a soda and chatting, or simply enjoying a good book. Crowds of strolling pedestrians fill the sidewalks at all hours.

The structure of the Spanish day embodies the agreeable lifestyle. The day begins anytime from 8:00 am to 10:00 am. Everyone floods the public transportation system at about 9:00 am to head to work. All are hard at work until 1:00 p.m., when the mid-day meal takes places. At this point all stores, banks, and offices shut down for two to four hours. This gives everyone a chance to eat a large meal, and take the customary mid day nap known as the "siesta". After the siesta normal activity resumes for several more hours. Families eat supper at about 10:00 p.m., and often end the day with a leisurely activity before retiring to bed.

Government policy also favors the Spanish way of life. It is mandated, for example, by government law that all enterprises give their employees a month of vacation during the year. That applies to employees of every age and experience level. So during the month of August many cities become ghost towns as their inhabitants travel off to other parts of the world.


This wonderful lifestyle has two direct impacts on Spanish society: a warmer people and a poorer economy. Enjoying life certainly has its economic consequences. Spain as a whole is substantially poorer than the rest of Europe. The lagging economy makes jobs a highly sought but less than ample commodity. Many young people are forced to postpone marriage until their late twenties or early thirties because they cannot find a job.

The ins and outs of everyday life also show signs of economic stagnation. The technology available to the general public is scant in comparison to most of the Western world. Computers are slowly creeping into the everyday scene. Streets are lined with pay phones because not everyone can afford a personal phone. Dorms will often have one general phone for all residents. Since efficiency is not a virtue, one can often come to a bank and wait an hour in a line that consists of two people. Life is neither as convenient as we are used to in the United States, nor is it as materialistic. People have fewer possessions, smaller closets and cheaper cars than an average American.

Though the society is poorer, interaction and friendships with the Spanish showed me that the lifestyle they embrace creates people whose lives and characters are rich indeed. As one of the first Americans to have ever studied at the Escuela Superior de Ingenieros Industriales, I found myself in a sink or swim situation. No precedents had been set, no guidelines given. Initially I felt lost in a sea of people who knew what they were doing. But the Spanish character would not let that last long. By the third day of class I had met classmates who offered their notes in lecture and invitations to join them out on the weekends. They were full of questions about our world and explanations about theirs. No one ever minded taking the time to explain things, to rephrase chunks of conversations that I could not grasp, or to simplify their speech to my level.

It was the many small encounters with people that to me emphasized their disposition as a whole. Since students in a major spent all of their time together, they formed very strong friendships and close knit groups. Yet when foreigners came along into their world, they opened their arms to welcome us. Many would make a special effort to strike up conversation with us, to make certain that foreign students did not feel alone. I was truly amazed at how freely the people I encountered gave their time to others. There were no planning calendars involved, only people.


The sum of all the lessons learned from my time in Spain was a better understanding of two very different philosophies of life. Each holds its own beauties and pitfalls. The American system of values rests mainly on hard work. Our role models allow work to become a priority to which they devote much of their lives. As a result we live in a relatively affluent society, in comparison to most. Yet the opportunities for prosperity that our society offers often become an end in themselves. Many of us tend to measure our success and happiness by the size of the paycheck, the house or the car. These things become the rewards of our long hours of labor.

The Spanish measure happiness on a different scale. Value is placed on living life to the fullest extent, and it is the people that make it full. Young and old alike can be found drinking and dancing until dawn. It may not make the next daily highly productive, but it makes the evening extremely satisfying. They are quite aware of the economic implications of their way of life. Often they become frustrated with the lagging state of the economy,.but in the end they realize that it is a result of the lifestyle that they choose as a society. Generally it is a choice which they make with pride. A Spanish friend put it in simple terms by saying to me, "We work to live, you live to work."
The different ways of life are reflected in the characters of the two societies. In America we focus our lives on hard work coupled with rugged individualism. We strive to be a nation full of individuals who embrace independence and achievement.

The Spanish culture creates a people full of warmth and cheer. The race they run is a calmer one. They reap a great deal of joy from life. Their joy is the kind that cannot be boxed, but can most certainly be felt in their demeanor and seen in their eyes.
Knowing that there is value to each way of life, I find myself searching for a way to reconcile the two ideologies into something applicable to our lives here. Certainly we will never have two-hour lunches, nor should we. The American work ethic is a unique characteristic that makes our country flourish. Yet there is much that we can learn from the Spanish in finding a balance that brings economical and personal fulfillment. Where the balance lies is a subjective question that holds a different answer for every individual. More knowledge always brings that answer one step closer.

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