Living through a crisis in Europe’s capital of COVID-19: Madrid

Mia Nikander
Mia Nikander
Mia Nikander studied for half a year in Madrid during COVID-19. Despite the timing, she encourages everyone to go for an exchange!


Name: Mia Nikander

Study Programme: Bachelor’s Degree in International Business Administration (BA) in Helsinki, specializing in Marketing and Communication

Exchange Location: Madrid, Spain

University: ESIC Business & Marketing School

Why did you choose to go abroad?: Initially, I chose to study at Estonian Business School because I wanted to study while working full time. After managing to combine these two for a few years, I needed to take a break from the constant rush and focus fully on my studies during the last semester, so I decided to use the opportunity for going on exchange. I also had an another personal reason why I chose Spain as my destination, as some of my relatives live in Spain, I truly wanted to learn the local language.


Why did you choose ESIC Business & Marketing School for your exchange studies?: I wanted to study in Madrid and I chose ESIC due to its strong connections to working life and focus on internationality. My second choice was Universidad de Deusto (Bilbao) which was more of a traditional Spanish school. At first I got accepted to Bilbao where most courses would have been held in Spanish. Soon after, I had the chance to switch to Madrid as one other student cancelled her place. I was very amused as this school has a really good reputation and offered me possibilities to create connections to local companies and amazing jumping-off point for future career opportunities abroad. I got to study at one of the best universities in Spain, where practical learning is deeply emphasized and most courses are taught in English. The wide course base offered me the chance to focus on hands-on digital marketing and learn about Spanish culture and language. The school also arranged great opportunities to learn from the biggest company leaders in Spain, as they held several conferences to which they welcomed international students also.


How did your expectations match the reality?: They matched very well. I truly enjoyed the personal relationships between the students and the lecturers as they remembered all their students by names. Some international students were, however, shocked by the occasional chaos that is kind of part of the Spanish culture. Myself, I knew to expect that and learned to find some logic of the chaos and got to refine my resistance of pressure. The courses I enrolled consisted 50/50 of local and exchange students, and I ended up blending in actually even better with the locals, which was a happy surprise. 


How did covid19 affect your studies and life in Madrid?: The first two months I got to live a normal student life with my eight roommates from seven different countries, but as the crisis began everything turned into a chaos for a while. Almost every exchange student I knew fled the country while me and my Finnish friend decided to stay. After living few months in uncertainty and under the most strict restrictions of Europe, the life started to gradually return to “new normality”. The university constructed a functional system for distance studies at a rapid pace, where most of the studies were ran by Zoom and the exams were conducted distantly, mostly in written or in a verbal form of presentations. It was nice to notice that the extra hassle was excluded while holding classes online and the in-class interaction was flowing fluently. The distance learning actually suited my situation well by making it easier to manage my time as I was enrolling in 12 courses of which 10 were based in Spain and two in Finland. Students and lecturers also really felt for each other and the team spirit was higher than ever before. During the worst times in Spain, there were roughly 10,000 new infections and a 1,000 deaths per day, which really brought people closer together. 


Why did you choose to stay in Spain even during the pandemic?: It was quite clear to me that I would stay no matter what as soon as I realized that this was a global crisis and I wasn’t part of the risk group. Of course I questioned myself at times, when almost everyone else decided to leave but I am glad I stayed as after the lockdown I still had time to get familiar with the new normality and enjoy my exchange to the fullest! I also found new friends as a mexican and three argentinians moved in with me into our shared flat once my previous roommates had fled the country. It turned into a habit that we arranged quarantine dinners every Friday together where we cooked different traditional foods from our home countries. These little things helped us get through the difficult times of lockdown as well as later on to get used to the new normality with having to wear a mask everywhere in a 40 degree summer heat. 


How did it feel to be in the middle of the crisis?: In the worst phase it really felt like living in a horror movie as for example the biggest exhibition centre of Spain got turned into a field hospital and an indoor ice rink constructed to serve as morgue in terms of lack of space.. We needed to live in total isolation for two full months and we were only allowed to leave our house to go to the grocery store. I only left the house for necessities wearing a mask and gloves, being always supervised by military and police. However, despite the moments of desperation, I enjoyed having once really time to think about what I wanted to do with my life as well as what was truly important. I also experienced that the Spanish government was sending unclear information about the crisis and it ended up being a political war as they couldn’t agree on the regulations and how to handle the situation at times.


How do you feel this experience has affected you and the way you see the world?: I learned that Spain had one of the toughest control systems in Europe as for example they would fine you for 600-1,000 euros for not obeying the regulations. The culture is so different than in Finland as even when Spanish people have respect for the authorities, they need really strict guidelines which to follow, as otherwise they would just keep trying to find ways to stretch the limits. On the other hand, Spaniards have a very positive attitude to life which could be seen in the media where news weren’t all about negativity and making everything look even worse than it is as is common in Finland, on the contrary they focused on reporting and creating a feeling of cohesion and that we could survive this together. One memorable thing was that every single night at 8pm the whole city of Madrid gathered to their balconies to applaud the healthcare workers risking their own lives from day to day to save all the lives possible. This habit continued to even the last weeks I spent in Spain, while life had returned to normal again.


What was your most memorable moment during your exchange?: Definitely the moment when I could get outside for the first time after being locked down for two months. It felt like all my senses were so much stronger - I could hear the birds singing a lot louder and see all the colors much brighter than before! It is really hard to explain the feeling, but it was something unreal. Also after the crisis I ended up extending my stay and got the chance to explore more Spain, for example beautiful Andalusian cities of Cordóba and Sevilla, which both trips were full of outstanding moments with local friends. 


What were your biggest fears for going abroad and did you overcome those fears?: My first month I was living with a Spanish family in which no one spoke nor understood any English. Gladly, however, in Madrid people speak “castellano” (the purest form of Spanish language), which I have also studied before, so with that knowledge and help of Google translate I was able to cope the first few days and have simple conversations in the dinner table. But as I see myself as a spontaneous person I didn’t think so much in advance about my fears. What was really different for me was living for the first time on a student budget as prior I had always been working full-time among studies. As Madrid is much more expensive than the rest of Spain, this required some calculations beforehand.


Would you recommend going abroad?: Definitely yes! Moving into a new country, getting deeply familiar with another culture and language are things that really grow you as a person. After the experience it is easier to face any challenges in life and consider working abroad. I would highly recommend making exchange a compulsory part of the study programmes with the help of Erasmus. Living abroad makes you more tolerant against people with different backgrounds and views, and helps you realize how similar we all truly are. No matter your age or life situation, going abroad is an eye-opening experience and in my case, the real culture shock hit me harder when returning back home with all the new experiences.