From Madrid to California Experiences of a virtual international student in the time of pandemic

At  3 a.m. on Mondays, Mariano Vargas López zooms in from his native Madrid to one of his classes at CSUMB. | Photo by Mariano Vargas López


By Mariano Vargas López

Translation by Claudia Meléndez Salinas

When you hear about California, you think of Los Ángeles or San Francisco. Perhaps the tech-savvy think of Silicon Valley. I dreamed of visiting those places when I was offered the possibility of moving from Madrid to Monterey Bay to study. Then the pandemic hit and my plans went down the drain.

The process to come to California State University at Monterey Bay as an international student began long before choosing the alternative. It began the first day I set foot in Rey Juan Carlos University: effort, daily work and perseverance became essential travel companions to be able to choose, before other students, my preferred destination.

My university offered the possibility of crossing the pond, and studying in three destinations in the United States: Oswego, Chicago and Monterey. I didn’t have to think too much about it. The mild climate, the possibility of visiting cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco, or national parks like Yosemite. The attractions were innumerable. When it came to choosing, I didn’t hesitate: Monterey Bay. I still remember with a smile the day it was confirmed. It was February 2020. In just six months my American adventure would begin!

A month later, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, changing our lives forever. Confinement, Zoom meetings, home gym, masks, overabundance of news. It was becoming clear that my dream of studying in the United States would have to be postponed until at least January, when the spring semester began. Months later my worst suspicions were confirmed: mobility was definitively canceled. I was offered the possibility of doing “online mobility” — a curious paradox. And since I believe in adapting to what comes and taking advantage of what you can, I accepted.


Screen capture of an enrollment card
International student Mariano Vargas López had to sort various obstacles to sign up for two classes at CSUMB that will also be valid for his coursework at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. | Provided

I have had to arm myself with a lot, a lot of patience to get around the bureaucracy from across the sea. Once I finally resolved that the classes I hoped to take at CSU Monterey Bay would be validated in Spain, all I had left to do was take the plunge.

Schedules are another challenge. On Mondays I have class from 1 to 3 a.m. (or 4 to 6 p.m. in California). Alone in the silence and darkness of nocturnal Madrid, I connect by forcing myself not to close my eyes and remain attentive. I drink coffee at midnight to stay awake so that, at the end of class, I find it difficult to fall asleep with the caffeine still working and while I try to mentally process what I have learned. Tuesdays and Thursdays are better, with classes from 11 p.m.  to 1 a.m. I’m one of those early-to-bed people, so I’ve had to alter my biorhythm to be a virtual international student.

Luckily, some of my studies do not require my online presence, so that’s a relief.

And then there is the English thing. It is one thing to speak it from time to time with foreigners in Madrid, and quite another to use it in a university classroom. How many times have I wanted to participate in class, but I have not done so because I cannot express myself easily.

Little by little, the language barrier and the fear that one feels are diluted. I keep making mistakes, yes, but English is no longer an impediment. Also, the California accent is easy for me to understand. Thankfully, fellow students encourage me whenever I apologize for my nonsense with language. I have always admired the open and outgoing character of people in the United States. Not everyone is the same, of course, but in general that has been my experience.

"Studying from home is a double-edged sword. It is comfortable, but at the same time it is very easy to get distracted. If you don't build up mental toughness and discipline, you may find that the class is on track without you finding out much about it."

The teachers have pleasantly surprised me. Always available to answer the questions I have, they usually answer my emails in just 24 hours. In addition, they establish tutoring schedules in which you can interact with the teacher. You can see the enthusiasm and motivation to pass on their knowledge to the students.


Screen capture of an enrollment card
One of the classes Mariano Vargas López is taking at CSUMB is introduction to filmmaking with Assistant Professor Silvia Turchin | Provided

Don’t study with your cell phone nearby

One of the dangers of remote teaching is that the class becomes a teacher monologue, with little student input. To prevent this from happening, I have noticed we are urged to turn on the cameras and we are challenged to participate in class. Most of the time, only the teacher and a couple of well-meaning students dare to show themselves. The rest hide under the anonymity of a photo, only activating the microphone when they want to say something. It would be appreciated if students were more proactive. If we can see the teacher, it would be nice if the teacher can see us back. It must be difficult to teach a class speaking to a screen in which only the initials of the students are on screen Sometimes a student photo appears, and perhaps a couple of students will turn on their cameras.

Studying from home is a double-edged sword. It is comfortable, but at the same time it is very easy to get distracted. If you don’t build up mental toughness and discipline, you may find that the class is on track without you finding out much about it. If you study with your mobile nearby, you may take a look at it from time to time. Later, you may remember that you are waiting for an important email and check your Gmail account. Halfway through class, you realize that you want to buy a gift for a friend and you go to Amazon.

When the class is coming to an end, you may want to review the latest results from your team. And by the time you refocus on what the teacher is telling you, class is over and you haven’t heard half of what happened. To avoid this, it is essential to avoid unnecessary temptations — mainly your cell phone — and force yourself to turn on the camera. This way, the teacher will be able to see if the student is actively following the class, or if his gaze wanders across the screen, a sign that he is dedicating himself to other tasks.


Screen capture of an enrollment card
By the time Mariano Vargas López feels the effect of the coffee he drinks to stay awake for the classes he takes at CSUMB from Madrid, it’s time to go back to bed | Provided

When  students do not participate in virtual classes, they are required to turn in homework every week. Constancy is very important. Each work has a negligible weight in the final grade. Unlike the Spanish university education system, the student who works diligently is rewarded in the United States. In Spain, one can study the minimum throughout the semester, pull an all-nighter before the final exam and save the day. At CSUMB, either you work from the beginning, or you fall by the wayside.

Already halfway through my adventure as a virtual international student — I never thought I could claim such a qualification — I can say that I do not regret having taken the step of studying remotely at CSUMB. It  can be difficult and fraught with inconveniences, but also with the satisfaction of having overcome them.

I am one of those who thinks that life gives second chances so I have no doubt that sometime in the future I will visit California, already with a degree in hand. For now, I’ll keep staying up late and connecting to Zoom.

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.



Mariano Vargas López

About Mariano Vargas López

Mariano Vargas López, estudiante de Periodismo en la Universidad Rey Juan Carlos de Madrid. Actualmente cursando un semestre en la California State University Monterey Bay como estudiante internacional. Siempre aprendiendo. Me interesa el periodismo como herramienta para el cambio social. | Mariano Vargas López studies journalism at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid. He is currently pursuing a semester at California State University Monterey Bay as an international student. Always learning. Interested in journalism as a tool for social change.