Meet Alexa McCartney: An Architecture Student with a Zest for Travel

Architecture student Alexa McCartney studied in Spain

Your education is not complete unless you study abroad: that’s how many NJIT students feel. There is nothing quite equal to being immersed in a foreign culture and studying at a foreign university, which compels you to question your assumptions and values and to rethink what you have learned. Whether you are studying engineering, architecture, business management or computer science, seeing how your major is taught in another country is never less than enlightening. And seeing another country with your own eyes and developing an international understanding is one of life’s great pleasures.

Alexa McCartney, a fifth-year architecture student, spent a semester studying in Spain. Her stay was arranged by the Office of International Students and Faculty, which helps NJIT students find a foreign university and city that’s best for them. In this interview, Alexa talks candidly about her experiences abroad.

Why did you decide to study abroad?
During my entire college career, I had wanted to study abroad. I love to travel, visit beautiful far-off historical sites, learn from others and my surroundings and experience different cultures. Before I studied in Spain, I had traveled in America and Europe with my family and friends and had toured with a university choir.

But I knew that being abroad for a semester would be a more engaging experience. And for a long time I had felt called to go to Spain. My mother’s family had lived in Spain after leaving Cuba many years ago due to what they perceived as Castro's oppression.  And I also have familial origins in Spain. I chose Madrid because NJIT had affiliations with a university there. And where I lived in Madrid was only a few blocks from where my family had lived years ago before they came to the United States, where I was born. I am Cuban, Spanish and Irish. I was born in New Jersey and lived with my mother’s family in a very united Cuban home. I grew up around a Spanish speaking family so I was able to go without worrying about the language barrier. I attended a Spanish university with all the classes given in Spanish (Castilian).

What college were you at and where did you live?
I studied at La Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (UPM) for the fall semester of 2007. The university didn't have a campus or dormitories. Instead, the university was clustered among other colleges, similar to way NJIT is surrounded by Rutgers-Newark, Essex County Community College, Seton Hall Law School and UMDNJ. There are several places that students live, although it was hard find a place before I left. There are residences called Collegios Mayores, which are similar to dormitories. I lived in a Residencia, though, within Madrid's city center. The students who lived there were from different universities, with many foreign students there as well. My residence had many rules, but it was like living with a family with many aunts (cooks, cleaning and laundry ladies), and many children (the students). Meals were served in one dining room and I often woke to the sound of the cleaning lady sweeping my floor. It was at an ideal location and I had quick access to the Metro and the bus and I was a short walk away from the historical center of Madrid.

What classes did you take and how did they differ from NJIT?
It took me a few weeks to get used to the type of Spanish they speak in Madrid, which is different from the Spanish I speak. Soon enough, though, I was able to understand the specific accent and the architectural term I wasn’t familiar with in Spanish. All the classes I took were architecture electives. They were mainly design projects, with lectures during the first half of the class and a design studio in the second half.

Would you recommend the study abroad program to other students?
I would definitely recommend it. The students here aren’t aware of how simple it can be to study abroad and how accessible these opportunities are. The people at the Office of International Students and Faculty at NJIT are all very kind, encouraging and excited for the ventures that traveling students partake in. Studying abroad is not for everyone, but I recommend it to all students to at least consider. It is an experience that you cannot get by staying in your current school. Along with attending foreign classes, you learn from other people your own age as well, make connections and create experiences and friendships in your living situations, school and travels. You have independence and you come to know who you are better by being away from family, friends and your usual comfort zone of home and school.

I would definitely recommend it. I think many students here aren’t aware of how simple it can be to study abroad and how accessible these opportunities are. As I’ve said, I’ve always loved traveling but spending a semester at a foreign university is an experience that compels you to expand intellectual and culturally. 

What did you think of the architecture of Spain?
I love the architecture of Spain. It varies from the grand capital of Madrid, to the extraordinary designs of Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona, to the beautiful story-telling architecture of the small towns of Toledo, Segovia or Avila. What stood out to me are the rustic materials they use, such as iron, stone and plaster. There is also an open centrality of the buildings. Although the old architecture is not a design type we use now, it is something that is so rich in history, aesthetics and stimulating to the senses and I love it. It was amazing to walk through old monasteries and churches, breathing in the holy ambience that vitally filled a whole town with a heroic saint's story. St. Teresa, for example, gave the whole town of Avila a sort of poignant energy and the air seemed filled with prayers and a holiness that was completely unexplainable.

How did your experiences abroad differ from what you imaged they’d be?
I had visited Spain, Italy and France before and had a few foreign friends and family from those places so I knew they would be just as similar and different as any person would be from any part of the world. I suppose what surprised and relieved me was that the men my age in Spain were not as bold as I had encountered before, especially when I had studied in Italy the summer prior. I was shocked also to see how enthusiastic the Spanish people my age are about the U.S. It seemed they were extremely in tune to our culture through movies and television programs, which are dubbed in Spanish. They also knew American music, our consumer products and more. I found that all were excited to hear about where I was from.

Travel always involves some adventurous mishaps. Did you have any notable ones?
I traveled most weekends, but once I took an especially long weekend trip to visit a friend in Antibes, south of France. I flew to Montpellier and was expecting to take a late train to her city. Once I arrived to Montpellier, I had to take a bus from the airport to the train station. The bus was so big that the driver could not take the normal roads to the station; he ended up zig-zagging all over the city. By the time I arrived at the station, it was two minutes after the last train to Antibes had left. That left me stranded, late at night in one of the most unsafe cities in France: I had no one to help me. After trying to ask anyone that looked remotely trustworthy with my basic knowledge of French, I was led to a hotel. Before I even opened my mouth to ask if there were any rooms available, I was told there was nothing available in any hotel in the area due to a professional soccer game. I ended up staying in the lobby of the hotel until it closed and befriending the security guard. I then eventually had to leave as they were closing down the lobby. I stayed outside hidden in the parking lot on a cold, late November night. During his rounds, the security officer would glance at me from time to time and bring me apples and warm coffee (which I greatly dislike, but drank to warm myself). I didn't sleep a wink, due to the strange people I heard lurking about and rodents I did not see but heard rustling nearby. I walked to the station at 5 a.m. when the station reopened and took a 6 a.m. train ride to my friend’s place. I was fortunately safe and sound, although quite exhausted.

How does Spanish culture differ from American culture?
Spanish culture includes a lot of festivals and at any given time you can find a festival in one city or other. The meal times are later than the U.S., with lunch around 2 p.m. and dinner around 9 or 10 p.m... Meals always include the first plate, second plate, and a third plate usually reserved for fruit or yogurt. Most young people love to party and go to discos. It is not unusual for young people to stay out all night on weekend nights. The streets of fast moving Madrid at nighttime were usually filled with activity. One aspect of Spain different from anywhere else is their gypsy flamenco culture. There were bars solely filled with flamenco music, rustic décor and gypsies scattered about. I had taken flamenco dance in the United States, but it was neat to see it be such a major part of Spanish history and culture. It is a beautiful, exciting dance and the music is so different from any other type of music found around the world. The flamenco singers have a distinct, even scratchy voice and clapping and stamping of the foot is part of the music.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)