Comparing and Contrasting: The University — The North Star Reports – by Katherine LaFleur. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

A special series. Comparing and Contrasting: The University — The North Star Reports – by Katherine LaFleur. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

1 IMG_6202[The exterior of the Roger de Llúria building. If I could have expanded the frame to the right more you would see the entrance to the Jaume I building, but with the sun at this time it was nearly impossible to get a good shot!]

During the orientation presentation for my host university, the chair of my chosen program described Barcelona as “a very sexy city”. At the time I remember catching myself mid-thought, wondering if there would ever be an occasion in the States in which I would hear a professor address and auditorium of students describing their city as “sexy”. Duluth is gorgeous, yes, but sexy? Eh….

Barcelona, though, warrants such a description. Filled to the brim with young people and their energy, it is a very happening city that inspires creativity and a sense of openness – not to mention the wealth of nightlife, which acts a draw for many a college student. This first encounter at my host university – Universitat Pampeu Fabra (UPF) – served as the first indication that the college culture here is a bit different than that of the States’. While it seemed small to start, this epiphany has stuck with me in the background of my consciousness, popping up here and there as I experience situations that would have a very different context back home.

2 IMG_6206[The courtyard of the Jaume I building, one of three that make up the Ciutadella campus. My two humanities courses are taught from this building. On sunny days every spare inch is covered by students and teachers alike.]

But let’s begin with the similarities, shall we? Going to university here is a bit of a status symbol: at orientation students receive a heavy binder with their university’s name or initials on the front and they parade these around as an indication of their achievement. In this way I would consider the college experience similar to that of the U.S. These binders are essentially the equivalent of the apparel we purchase in school stores, bearing the names or insignias of our preferred/attended schools and serving as a symbol to those who don’t know us that we have some sort of connection to this place. Many of the expected behaviors are the same, as well; no food in class, cellphones turned off, arriving to class on time, etc. I also chose this study abroad program because it offered programs through UPF that coincided well with my major at home allowing me to take courses with themes relevant to my studies. In these ways, my experience has paralleled that of attending class back home at the College of St. Scholastica.

3 IMG_6233[My UPF binder, the same that every UPF student receives.]

But there remain key differences that I have noticed over time. As a stark example, the cost of tuition here is much more affordable. A year of undergraduate study at my host university, UPF, costs around 2,300€ ($2,600) or less, with textbooks rarely costing the unearthly sums we fork over each semester back home in the States. The campus, too, is quite different. CSS has a small but beautiful campus situated on one of Duluth’s hills. It serves as a mini community housing both educational and residential buildings that are all situated in close proximity to one another. Classes are held primarily inside, unless the weather is so beautiful before or after the long winter that the professors cure our cabin fever with a long awaited outdoor lecture. Cafeterias offer coffees, smoothies, salads, snacks and entrees – and our latest upgrades feature bagels and sushi! Overall, it’s pretty self-sufficient and once you’ve managed to find a parking spot there are few reasons to leave until you have business elsewhere.

4 IMG_6002[The Ramon Turró building, where I go every morning for my Spanish course. In the background you can see a contrasting brick building, which is an old aqueduct that was converted into a library space. UPF is very progressive in that it only seeks out properties that it can refurbish into class space instead of building new.]

UPF features three campuses sprinkled across the city; Mar: the beach campus housing the Health Science courses, Ciutadella: only a five minute walk from my apartment and home to most of the Humanities, and Poblenou: located in the new Tech district of Barcelona it’s home to the Communications classes. UPF also has a partnership with la Escuela Superior del Comercio Internacional (ESCI), a local business school, and so twice a week I walk ten minutes to the other side of Ciutadella Park to attend class (classes here, by the way, only run Monday-Thursday). Buildings are large with open-air walkways and squares in the middle, for the most part. As the climate here is usually sunny and warm, the squares are the gathering places for students and professors alike, offering plenty of space to catch up while catching rays. While there are plenty of cities in the U.S. that could accommodate such designs I found myself marveling at the openness of it all, wondering how inconvenient it would be to try and shovel everything should it snow!

5 IMG_5810[The ESCI Campus as viewed from my commute! I walk almost directly from my apartment down one street until it ends at this building every Monday and Wednesday for a business course.]

Perhaps the largest difference though, and this is more cultural than collegiate, is the cafeteria space. Much of the dining space is situated outside where people can gather to eat, converse and smoke. And within the cafeteria itself, the option of buying alcohol caught me off-guard at first. I will likely never forget my surprise when as I stood in line to buy gum before my 9AM class, the man ahead of me ordered a beer. The American within me cringed, thinking “Beer before 10AM, ufda!” as the exchange went on unperturbed. I walked to class that day going over the scenario in my head and realizing that I was viewing the transaction through a completely different cultural lens. Here, there is no problem in having a beer for breakfast with a small sandwich, or beer at any other time of the day for that matter, so long as it’s in moderation.

In any case, while there are both similarities and differences in my experience thus far, everyday I am grateful for the opportunity to be here. The courses I’m taking are both stimulating and relevant and the professors are phenomenal. Animated and very obviously passionate about their own fields of study, they make it easy to want to go to class. At this point I’m about halfway through the trimester and I couldn’t be happier!

Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at)

See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at

The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, The Middle Ground Journal and The College of St. Scholastica’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our program. We also welcome Duluth East High School and other schools around the world. The North Star Reports has flourished since 2012. For a brief summary, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

The North Star Reports publishes edited essays from our students, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. Students have reported from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing reviews of books, documentaries, and films, projects on historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and analysis of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches, and report on their interactions with the North Star Reports students and teachers.

We thank The Department of History and Politics for its generous financial support for The North Star Reports and The Middle Ground Journal.

Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy The NSR is sponsored by The Middle Ground Journal and The College of St. Scholastica. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact chief editor Professor Liang at HLIANG (at)


Filed under Katherine LaFleur, North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

35 responses to “Comparing and Contrasting: The University — The North Star Reports – by Katherine LaFleur. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal

  1. Katy Goerke

    Great comparisons! Hav you told any one how much it costs for you to attend school in the states? I’m sure their cultural shock would be on par with yours at them drinking beer before 10 am. Also, apparently we no longer have sushi or at least its disappeared for now at CSS so you can be even more thankful that you are in Barcelona, with the sun.

  2. David Miller

    I am going to ask you the same question i asked one my friends who is studying abroad in London, and that is how is adjusting to a whole new campus? Well I might be transferring to the university you are at due to the cost difference between the two colleges. I laughed when you mentioned the whole man ordering the beer in the morning, because like you said that seems so unorthodox to us in the United States.

    • Hi David! Adjusting to a new campus is certainly a bit difficult. CSS is a campus I’ve been pretty familiar with all my life and it’s become a bit of a second home in the last three years – to the point where I began to take it for granted, I realized. Something as simple as knowing where you can go to print quickly in a bind, or who you can ask for help in a specific situation is a luxury. I think of when I was experiencing laptop difficulties and taking advantage of the computer lab here. I knew where it was, having passed it during orientation, so getting there and finding a computer was easy enough but when it came to printing, at one point I became so exasperated that I left campus in a huff after having asked three people and not feeling like I had gained any practical knowledge that would help me print my paper. I eventually learned that instead of trying to deal with the printers available in the far back of the library (with signage and explanations all in Catalan) I could go upstairs to a “copisteria” where I just needed whatever file I wanted to print saved in .pdf on a jump drive and a bit of spare change to pay for the printing. I was so discouraged at the start that I found myself kind of giving up -and I would consider that a low point, but having been here now for over half the trimester I can attest to the fact that it gets easier and it usually just requires a bit of exploration to become accustomed to the new spaces.

  3. Kendra Johnson

    I really enjoyed how you compared and contrasted both the schools, culture, and areas. It’s fun being able to “experience” other places even though I’m not really there and reading this, I felt like I was there. It sounds like an amazing experience too!

  4. Kaitlyn Young

    I loved all of the details you gave about the culture of the university you are attending! I bet that getting to have lunch in such an open space would be amazing! That would definitely be a difficult design to have here in Minnesota! The part about the man buying a beer so early made me smile. It’s interesting that we exclude having a beer to just at night or with dinner. Having a beer in the morning is unheard of in the US! Very nice article!

  5. Kyle Hellmann

    It was very entertaining to see the similarities and the differences from Duluth and Barceolona, and the campuses. I like how the binder is a display of accomplishment of new students at the university, a very cool concept and probably a lot cheaper than the apparel I buy! Keep the updates coming, and I’m glad you are enjoying the good weather!

  6. I’m glad you said “I walked to class that day going over the scenario in my head and realizing that I was viewing the transaction through a completely different cultural lens.”

    It’s crucial for travel writers to be aware of their own cultural bias. Without that intuition–as World History Seminar students read this semester–it can become quite problematic. Not only should the writer be aware, but should also acknowledge it to their readers like you did.

  7. Emily Schiro

    I like the comparisons between the two schools. It brings a good perspective from those of us who have only been in the states for school. I wish that tuition was like that over here. I also think that it was interesting to learn how the university uses old buildings instead of building new.

  8. Donovan Chock

    Thank you for your posts! You are such a wonderful writer! Reading your stories makes my wonder why I am here and not there……… Europe definitely has different standards regarding alcohol than we do. Makes you wonder if one way is better than the other. I look forward to reading your next post!

  9. Bao Vang

    First off, I love all the photos you provided in the article! Secondly, I agree with you about how colleges are different throughout the world. Reading your article reminded me of a trip I went on about six years ago. I traveled to London, observed their high school education, and compared it to North America’s education. There were a few similarities and a lot of differences in the education system in London. But I feel that that is what makes their education unique because every country has their own culture! Thank you for sharing your story!

  10. It’s sounds like you are having a lot of fun and experiencing lots a of different culture. It is really cool to see different places and experience them so you can get an idea of different places in the world and how people around the world are living. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Becca

    I enjoyed this post a lot. I find the differences between the schools fascinating. I personally prefer Scholastica’s small, centralized campus, it’s one of the reasons I love the school. Do the schools have apparel like the schools here do, or is it just the folders?

    • Hi Becca! I haven’t seen any school apparel apart from those repping U.S. universities! My university, UPF, does have a school store offering clothing bearing the insignia and such but there are 3 shirts and one sweatshirt- so it’s really nothing like say, the Saints Shop or the UMD store where there are almost hundreds of options!

  12. Austin Kindt

    How is the cost of living in Barcelona compared to Duluth? I wish higher education here was affordable! I think there needs to be a happy medium with education as I’m guessing taxes are higher compared to ours. I loved your reaction to someone buying a beer that early and on campus as I probably would have done just the same.

    • I suppose I haven’t had the best immersion into Barcelona life to be able to answer fully, Austin, but I’ll try my best based on what I’ve seen. As far as housing, Barcelona apartments are priced similarly to any big U.S. city- that is, they are ridiculously expensive, even those which aren’t very impressive. Food though, is cheap. Produce in the corner fruit markets or grocery stores is priced so well your jaw drops imagining what would happen if you picked one up and dropped it in the U.S. (Think mobs for strawberries less than $4.00 a box) Transportation here is marvelous, the Metro is incredibly convenient and the lack of hills mean that people usually just walk or bike or rollerblade wherever they need to go, so that is relatively inexpensive compared to Duluth where you typically need to drive anywhere unless you want to use the buses. I guess all in all, Duluth being a smaller city is relatively less expensive than Barcelona but I would guess that they would even out on a more comprehensive scale system.

  13. I like how you compared and contrasted both schools in terms of areas, culture and the like. It must be a great experience for you. Enjoy it to the fullest!!!

  14. Hannah Kunde

    “These binders are essentially the equivalent of the apparel we purchase in school stores, bearing the names or insignias of our preferred/attended schools and serving as a symbol to those who don’t know us that we have some sort of connection to this place.” I especially like this quote because I think every college student could relate to this statement. It is rare that any college student can go through their whole college life without seeing of having something with the college emblem on it. Wonder why that is? I especially love your pictures, it really adds fine details of what your saying about the comparisons.

  15. Mike Lehmann

    I think I have an idea, but are the teacher and student interactions there similar to the ones that we have in the US? I mean does the teacher have a “higher” status than the student or are they seen more as equals? Just wondering but the city looked amazing you must be having an awesome time.

    • Hi Mike! I think it’s pretty similar in that student-teacher relations vary greatly depending on which college you’re in. Business and Science campuses tend to have more distance between the students and professors, with the humanities tending towards a more interactive experience. My professors here are very similar to those in the States in that they are incredibly approachable and helpful and their main goal is to make sure everyone is on the same page. The difference I’ve noticed is that professors here seem to be more laid back, with the expectation that Spanish students are going to talk very loudly during class without necessarily viewing it as disrespectful? It’s one of the peculiarities I’ve not quite sorted out yet!

  16. It’s very cool to see not only the similarities but the differences in the education environment. Knowing that you can order a beer with breakfast on campus, and how it’s not culturally “obscene” is pretty fascinating. I wonder how often we look past certain idiosyncrasies in judgment because of the fog in our own lenses. Great article!

  17. Camila Garcia

    Coming from a different country I also find the differences that you described in the article. Definitely, schools are bigger and are very open since the weather is always very nice and sunny. I think is very cool to see the differences between universities here and there!

  18. Karn Pederstuen

    Thank you for sharing your experiences abroad! The comparisons you made between the two universities were very interesting. Like you, I was surprised by the option to purchase alcohol on campus and I was also shocked by the difference in tuition between the two universities.

  19. Kyle Stepka

    What I thought was very interesting and also very cool was the comparison between the two universities. The biggest thing I thought that ws crazy was purchasing alcohol on the schools campus.

  20. Tyler Winkelman

    Wow that’s crazy that you can buy alcohol on the schools campus! The comparisons between the two universities was very interesting to hear.

  21. Alex Cole

    It’s always interesting to hear about schooling in other countries. Most schools here are all the same so we don’t realize there’s a difference in other countries.

  22. Luke

    I like the comparison you drew between the binders and our school stores. Students wear sports apparel with school logos for a sense of pride here, whereas in Barcelona it seems as if they’re more proud of their academic achievements.

  23. Benjamin Carlson

    This was a great read and thank you for sharing! your comment regarding “beer before 10AM” is spot on. While in the US we have this ideology where you drink to get drunk, and once you start here is no stopping until you wake up the next asking what happened. It isn’t until we remove yourselves from a society that we reflect on what our cultural norms really are. I am sure you will have quite a few more of these experiences through your time there. Embrace them and you’ll be surprised at what you find.

    • Hi Benjamin! Thanks for commenting! I agree, and personally I’ve always been uneasy with the binge-drinking culture the youth of the U.S. are drawn into. Here, drinking is just as prevalent among students, but I’ve gotten the feeling that young adults who drink after being socialized in an environment that emphasizes the social nature of alcohol in lieu of the intoxicating nature rarely find themselves in the same sorts of difficult and dangerous situations that I’ve heard horror stories about from my peers. The more I experience the ideas on alcohol here, the more I wish we had a similar culture back home, if only for the sake of our own wellbeing.

  24. It is hard to believe school is so cheap there. lt is also confusing to me that it is so expensive here. But there is always a trade off, the cost of living may be cheaper here than it is there, but it all has to be put into context. I think as time goes on with the growing amount of student debt there will be a large movement to try and adopt a system that is similar to the European system. Especially in terms of cost per year. I hope you are enjoying your stay there.

    • Thanks for commenting! I am definitely enjoying my stay. And as far as comparing the cost of living, I’m not so sure that one place is better or worse than the other, but the idea of a more affordable education is something I will always get behind. I’m not quite sure what system the U.S. will move toward, but I know that currently our system is set to fail: both our students and itself.

  25. Carley Henning

    As a student interested in studying abroad, I found this article interesting. The worlds countries are so different and it’s great that you get to experience them first hand. I can only dream of the experiences you are witnessing in hope that some day, I will get the same chance!

  26. Chelsey L

    This is something that I never thought about. Your experience sounds like it was fun but interesting. I can’t believe the cost difference though and also the different areas of the campus where here it is all in one area. That is great that you can share this to give people that do not get a chance to travel a bit of experience through telling. I want to travel so having these articles of the ones that do travel, gives me a heads up. Very good on explaining the differences between there and here with the schools.

  27. Kyle Stepka

    I think studying abroad would be so sweet meeting new people from didn’t part of the world and seeing how they live and what they do. The culture shock would also be very cool. Your experiences is very cool and I am very jealous.

  28. Shelby Olson

    I really enjoyed the comparisons you made between college life in Barcelona compared to that of the US. While I have always read about the general design of Spanish style buildings in my Spanish classes here in Duluth, I never really went out of my way to learn more. It’s amazing how much the architecture and general building structures can be so telling of the culture. Something that I especially like from Spanish style architecture are that they frequently include a square that acts as a communal space. I think that it can overall show the value of community and being outside. Thanks for sharing!

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