Study Abroad Madrid: Immersion Trip for Two Brothers

Madrid is well-known for its great food, art and history — and is one of Syracuse University’s most popular study abroad destinations — so it was a no-brainer choice for Connor and Justin Laurent ’21 when they were deciding where to spend their semester overseas.

The brothers, who just completed their junior year at the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, were supposed to be in Madrid, Spain for the entire Spring 2020 semester, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they returned home to New Jersey in mid-March. 

Returning to the United States after having what’s supposed to be the best semester of college cut short is in no way easy, but the transition of getting acclimated to living in a foreign country is no walk in the park either. 

For Connor and Justin, who lived in the same homestay in Madrid, the language was the initial barrier — their host mother didn’t speak English, and while the brothers had some prior knowledge of Spanish, they weren’t fluent.

“Not being able to communicate with somebody isn’t fun at first,” Justin says. “But just like everyone says, when you get immersed in a culture, you learn the language fast.”

And their host mom helped along the way, making every effort to welcome Connor and Justin into her home. She walked them to school on the first day of classes and was a great cook. She tried speaking Spanish in a way that she knew the brothers would understand.

As a fan of soccer team Atletico Madrid, the host mom even included them in her weekend routine of having neighbors over every Sunday to watch the game. 

A month into living in Madrid, with the help of daily Spanish classes at the Syracuse Center — the favorite abroad class for both brothers — they were able to communicate with locals. “On my 20-minute bus ride in the morning, I was able to have a full conversation with the guy next to me in Spanish,” Connor shares. And by the end of their time in Madrid, Connor and Justin could hold consistently long conversations with their host mom.

They got to spend two months exploring Madrid — eating at local cafes, walking through Plaza Mayor, taking the metro, rowing at Retiro Park — and traveling around the rest of Europe.

Connor’s first week abroad was spent scuba diving and learning about marine ecology in Southern Spain and Morocco, through one of Syracuse Madrid’s Signature Seminars. 

After the Syracuse Florence program closed in late February, a lot of people remained hopeful that the situation in Madrid wouldn’t reach that same level, but Justin had an inkling that the students would end up being sent home. The brothers ended up pushing a skiing trip they had originally scheduled for April in Switzerland up to the beginning of March.

And even before the Florence program was shut down for the semester, Syracuse University — both the Madrid center and home campus — kept students and their parents updated with information about the burgeoning pandemic.

Connor and Justin’s mother, who had planned to visit Madrid along with their sister, was kept in the loop throughout their time abroad. The Syracuse Madrid center even organized a COVID-19 focused Q&A session.

Their last week in Madrid the pandemic really started to worsen. Students were given the option to return to the United States. “The cases in Spain sort of jumped, and everyone started to get kind of concerned — even the teachers,” Justin says.

The brothers had flights booked back to the United States for Saturday, March 14, but at 2 a.m. the Thursday before, news broke about President Donald Trump’s Europe travel ban, which was supposed to take action the day after. And tickets to fly out on Friday jumped to nearly $11,000. Luckily, their flight on Saturday still made it out of Spain and brought them home safely.

This semester abroad for Syracuse University students was different in many ways from those that preceded it, but despite their abruptly short experience, Connor and Justin still firmly believe that if possible, every student should go abroad at some point. And they’d both go back to Madrid in a heartbeat.

“Immerse yourself in the culture. Don’t be afraid to try new things. That’s what it’s about,” Connor shares. “It’s only really going to be an awesome story for you at the end.”

Learn more about other Whitman student’s study abroad experiences.

Sandhya Iyer