Middlebury's Language Pledge combined with studying at a Spanish University is optimal if your goal is to live, learn and connect in Spanish. You take a pledge to only speak Spanish during the duration of your study abroad experience. You take three classes at UC3M (the abbreviated name for Carlos III), and one intensive language course at "la sede" (Sede Prim - the Middlebury school in Madrid). I lived near Atocha station, the largest train station in Madrid that connects you to all lines of the Cercanias, the AVE, and a number of metro stops. My apartment was a 30-minute walk to the Middlebury School and a 5- to 10-minute walk to the train station that would take me to Getafe 3-4 days a week.
I loved getting to know Spanish students in my classes. I took one first year course on 20th century history of Spain and two third year courses in sociology. The students in the first-year course were younger than me (18-19), and the age difference made it a bit difficult to connect, but many of them expressed to me that it was exciting to meet an American who could speak Spanish. I really connected with the students in my third year sociology courses. Many of them took both courses with me - one on family and gender in Spain and the other on society and the environment. We often did group projects together, and they really helped me improve my Spanish - from talking in person to chatting via What'sApp or speaking on the phone. We spent time together outside of class around the small town of Getafe and got together every so often in Madrid.
The only downfall of this program was the commute. I didn't really enjoy having to split my time between Madrid and Getafe. Taking the train was a good way to get some reading in or finish up an assignment on the way to class, and there is a train that takes you to Getafe directly outside of the Middlebury School (extremely convenient!). I just had to get used to the train schedule. Having a 3- to 4-hour break between two classes on Tuesday or Thursday meant that I stayed on the campus and did homework (great for getting homework done), but sometimes I felt confined. There is a great gym on the UC3M campus, and many students paid for a membership so that they could work-out during a break before, after or between classes. I had one closer to my apartment that was cheaper though.
I liked the fact that we had to take a language course at the Middlebury School. It is in the Chueca neighborhood, near many quaint cafés and great restaurants. It's just north of the center of the city, la Puerta del Sol, which is a great place for tourism. The language course helped me maintain my connection with the Middlebury headquarters, the other students at the Middlebury program, and all the resources and help offered by the amazing staff there. Patricia (the director) was extremely helpful in helping me select my coursework. Lena helped me with all things related to technology and my visa paperwork. Teruca (Teresa) was awesome with helping me navigate interesting social dynamics and helping me secure an internship for the spring. Marta was amazing in connecting me with all the different cultural activities and travel opportunities in the area (and really helped me improve my Spanish). Laura helped with housing and setting up the different Middlebury events for the program.
I lived with four Spaniards - a guy from Valencia, a girl from the Basque Country, a guy from Italy (who spoke Spanish fluently and was doing his master's in Sports Journalism at UC3M), and a guy from Galicia. We called ourselves "la familia de la Charidad", a play on words (caridad = charity, and our landlady's name was Charo). The name speaks to the kindness and warmth that our landlady showed towards us, and the affection we had for the group living there. I was extremely lucky to live with these people. Laura had this apartment on her list from previous years. After seeing the apartment and meeting the tenants, 4 of us drew straws to see who got to live there, and I won. I highly encourage other students not to settle for an apartment without Spanish housemates. Ideally, if you want to learn Spanish, you will be living with people who only speak Spanish. My housemates were all older than me (26-32), and it was the perfect age range. We all really got along. It was vital for my connection to Spanish culture. I learned how to cook Spanish food and would cook meals and invite friends over often.
My favorite resource through the Middlebury HQ was the language exchange (intercambio) program. I met up with a guy from Getafe once a week (we usually alternated between meeting in Getafe and Madrid), a girl who lived right down the street from me, and a girl from Majadahonda, a suburb of Madrid. I became really close with all three of them and still Skype with them every month or two.
Having class with Spanish students at a Spanish university, participating in the language exchange program, and living with Spaniards were the most important factors that contributed to my linguistic growth in the Spanish language, but more than that, those were the lasting connections that made my experience unforgettable (and really hard to say goodbye).