Student Feature –
This week’s ACCENT Student Feature comes from Sara Rose Comis, an MIT student who studied abroad in Madrid in Spring 2012. The piece, titled “A Comparison between Spain and the United States,” touches on Sara’s experience as an American student interning in Madrid and speaks to the differences in the “intern experience” in the United States versus Spain. During Sara’s time abroad, she submitted this essay to the Planet-BMP contest, “I am Europe” and won fourth place! Congrats, Sara, and thanks for sharing with ACCENT!
Wedging my way out of the packed subway car, I kept my eyes peeled for any sign of the bus terminal that I knew was supposed to be here somewhere. I headed toward the exit of the metro just like everyone else, walking rapidly as if I had somewhere important to be in a few minutes. Once I passed through the exit turnstile, I made a beeline straight for the metro attendant I had happily discovered to be situated at every metro station in Madrid.
“Excuse me, where can I find the 573 bus?” I asked the attendant in Spanish. “Right across the street,” she replied. “Out of which exit? Across what street?” I inquired as I looked around wildly at the three different exits nearby. However, the attendant had already disappeared into the backroom.
I chose the closest exit and walked out of subway station into the busy morning traffic. Looking around, I saw my bus turn into the park across the street. With two minutes to spare, I joined the crowd rushing toward the park ready to catch the bus that would take me to the outskirts of Madrid, where my spring semester internship was located.
The first major difference that I noticed between my hometown in the United States and Madrid was the cleanliness, speed, and type of people that traveled around the city on public transit. Having taken the public bus for five years in an urbanized city to get to my middle school and then high school, I can easily confirm that in Los Angeles only the people who do not have a car or do not have a lot of money take the bus. I often found myself sitting next to drug addicts, Mexican laborers, and crazy people who had gone through the medical system, been declared sane, and then returned to the streets. In contrast, the people who ride the buses or take the subway in Madrid are well dressed, mind their manners, and seem comfortable with their public transportation system. Essentially, the stigma against public transportation that I found to be so prevalent in Los Angeles does not seem to exist in Madrid.
When I arrived at the designated location in the outskirts of Madrid to begin my internship on my first day of work, a secretary met me at the door and welcomed me into the kitchen where the other employees were drinking coffee with cookies and fruit before beginning the day’s work. Everyone went out of their way to stop what they were doing to welcome me, and then I was escorted around the building. Every person I encountered planted a kiss on each of my cheeks before allowing me to move on and introduce myself to the next person. Being a person who does not kiss very many people, this custom took some time before it became second nature.
The cheek kissing also made me wonder about the hand shaking that is customary in the United States when introductions are made. My aunt, a business woman, taught me at a young age about the importance of giving a firm, but soft hand shake upon introductions. She said that if one’s handshake is too firm, the person is implying that he plans on dominating the interaction and could possibly become hostile. If on the other hand a person’s handshake is weak, the person is suggesting that the interaction is unimportant to him and a waste of time. With this in mind, I began to wonder about the significance of the cheek kissing. Did a kiss on the cheek versus in the air next to the cheek make a difference? What about a kiss close to the other person’s mouth versus further away from the mouth? When I asked my coworkers about the importance of the type of kiss given to another person, they thought that my speculations were unfounded and that I was reading into the situation too much.
So, back to my first day: within 30 minutes of being at my Spanish internship, I felt as though I had known everyone for several years and was simply returning to work after a long vacation. While I had felt welcomed by the U.S. employees of the major oil company where I interned last summer in Virginia, my coworkers in Spain were far more enthusiastic about my arrival than my prior co-workers in the United States. In stark contrast to the tiny cubicle that I had last summer, I now had a desk that was open to the entire room as well as the other people in the engineering department. Also, the coffee at my internship in Spain was free!
My boss gave me a quick run through on how the company functioned, how it fit in the energy sector in Spain, and what the company’s plans were moving forward. I was eager to review the thermodynamics of cogeneration (the simultaneous generation of electricity and heat) so that I could get started on my project for the semester; the only problem was that I had no project. Every day I would come into work and have to wait an hour until my boss arrived. If I hadn’t finished my work from the day before, I would continue to work on that project. Otherwise, since my coworkers tended to gather in the kitchen for breakfast before starting on work for the day, I would take my time in the kitchen drinking coffee and eating fruit until everyone started going back to their desks. Once my boss arrived, I would ask him what I could do for the day. I started out doing busy work such as digitizing the layout of a cogeneration plant and translating a document from Spanish to English. When I had finished those tasks and my boss was not around, I started asking other people in the engineering department and maintenance departments for work. Of every five people I asked, only one had a task for me to do. I guess very few employees have excess work.
While I knew that Spanish legislation had halted the development of renewable energy, which included cogeneration, I had not realized that this meant that I would be without meaningful work. In the United States, when companies agree to take on an intern, they make sure to assign them to groups that have a specific project in mind. Throughout the internship, it is the intern’s job to go through the steps that any other employee would perform in order to complete the project. If challenges arise, the intern’s supervisor is available to answer questions or point the intern in the direction of the necessary resources.
With the American internship experience freshly imprinted on my mind, I had incorrectly assumed that my internship in Madrid would be similar. I had thought that like the United States, people in Europe were goal driven and highly valued each other’s performance. Instead, Spaniards seem to view internships as opportunities to observe how work is performed in a company. The internee is encouraged to ask whatever questions come to mind, but there is no delegation of work, need to produce, or application of the concepts involved. In other words, internships are seen more as a form of “show and tell” by the employer rather than the intense performance driven “learning on the job” that is expected of American internships.
When talking to my Spanish co-workers, I began to gain a better understanding of the work mentality as well. Apparently, while a company is supportive of a productive work environment, weekend trips and activities outside the office seem to play a role in how employees judge each other rather than the completion of projects. Additionally, all business deals require human-to-human interaction and lunch. Unlike the American organizations that are working toward increasing the use of digital tools to minimize physical interactions and save time in business transactions, one of my coworkers was positive that a digital meeting could never replace the human contact needed to finalize a deal. In the words of one of my coworkers, “Lunch is the most important part because that is when we have a chance to learn about our partner as a person and learn if he is the type of person with whom we want our company to be associated.”
Since proving to my boss that I am capable of performing analyses such as the distribution of costs at cogeneration plants, I have earned the privilege of taking on more complicated analyses. In addition to working my way up to meaningful work, I was able to take advantage of several cogeneration plant tours to see how the plants are designed and the work environment of the employees. In terms of safety, my internship in the United States would never have let me tour the plant without a helmet or goggles. I did, however, have earplugs, which were a huge help when walking past the turbines.
Overall, while this internship is nowhere close to what I had expected in terms of work ethic or productivity, I have learned much about the core cultural beliefs that Spaniards regard so highly. Aside from the work that needs to be completed, my experience has taught me that there is a much higher regard for the well-roundedness of an employee and his personal experiences than there is in the United States. When I return home either to intern or work, I will look at all interactions with my coworkers and business partners from a new perspective: the point of view of one’s willingness to know me for who I am as opposed to what financial gains they can achieve through their relationship with me.
~ Sara Rose Comis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Spring 2012 – ACCENT Madrid