Arriving in Chile was a huge shock. I flew out of Iowa in March, where there was a few feet of snow on the floor, to Chile in March, where it was around 80˚F. I landed a week after the big earthquake and there were damages to parts of the airport in Santiago, so customs was held out on the tarmac. I was so hot in my winter coat and seriously struggling to follow the instructions given quickly in Spanish.
There are so many aspect of Chilean culture that were radically different from American culture; there was a lot that I needed to adjust to. I feel like I made the adjustment fairly smoothly without huge, drastic events to define it. I recall being really tired a lot of the time, and I think that was a result of putting extra effort into every little part of the day, mostly due to the language barrier. I think I’m the kind of person that will be generally happy in most situations, not dwelling on the things she wished she had. And there was plenty of things from the States to comfort me, like watching Gilmore Girls and Dawson’s Creek with my host sister.
I do remember in the second month beginning to get upset as my stores of Dove Dark Chocolates and books in English started to run low. As both a major sources of stress relief in my life, it was difficult to imagine surviving the remainder of the semester without them when my stress levels were always higher than normal. Chocolate in Chile was absolutely terrible and books in English were difficult to find, impossible at a reasonable price. In the end, my mom mailed me a boxful of chocolate and I successfully stocked up on books when a friend and I discovered and bookstore devoted to English books in Buenos Aires.
Naturally, I never felt fully comfortable in Chile, but I don’t remember being in that state where everything is overwhelmingly new for a very long period of time.
It feels like everything in Chile was a challenge.
My Spanish skills were not at the level they should have been before I studied abroad in a solely Spanish speaking country. To add on to that, Chilean Spanish is fast, really fast, and includes a large amount of slang used by everyone in the society. Starting off my day was difficult. To get to class in the morning, I took a colectivo, which is basically a bus running a route, but in the form of a compact car. The concept is simple, you get in the car, hand the driver your money, and tell him where to drop you off. So, I’d say ‘Hasta la Catolica.‘ (To la Catolica). The driver would respond with ‘Donde?‘. (Where?). I’d repeat ‘La Catolica’. And again he’d make it clear he didn’t understand and ask me where again. After a few rounds of that, it would come clear to him where I was headed and the conversation would end it him saying ‘Aahhh, la Catolica‘. I’d just nod my head thinking ‘Is that not what I said six times over?’. I still have no idea how to say it correctly so that Chileans understand me. I tried every imaginable variation of emphasis, but that scenario was repeated almost every morning. I don’t want to think that they were just messing with the gringa because everyone was so nice and helpful throughout the entire semester. And a good percentage of interactions included someone looking at me clearly wondering what this girl was trying to say.
Classes in Spanish were hard. My goal was to pass and receive credit; anything beyond that would just be . I struggled to follow the lectures. Readings, homework, and papers were difficult. I’d been hoping for an easy course load so that I could enjoy as much of the country and culture as I could. Instead I spent a great deal of time on classwork, and I probably would have been more successful academically if I’d dedicated more time.
Another challenge was that the microphone in my computer didn’t function. I was told I could buy one and plug it in, so tracking that down in itself was a process. In the end, it was decided that nothing was going work and I was going to have to survive the semester microphoneless. In addition, I couldn’t figure out how to make international calls on the my cell phone, and my parents never discovered how to call me. For the entire semester, I didn’t have a voice to voice conversation with anyone at home, and at times, that was really hard. We could Skype and see each other, but all of my responses were delayed by typing.
I spent last semester (Spring 2010) in Valparaíso, Chile. The program I went with was a direct exchange between Hamline University and la Ponticia Universidad Catolica de Valparaíso, or la Catolica for short. The direct exchange meant I paid for a regular semester at Hamline and a student in Chile paid for a regular semester in Chile, and we basically switched places. This type of progam made figuring out the costs of study abroad fairly simple. I really just had to pay for the plane tickets and then allot an amount of money for travel and other daily spending.
At la Catolica, you’re required to take a minimum of 15 credits. Personally, I thought that was too much, as we are required to take a minimum of 12 credits here at Hamline and a 16 credit load is normal. In addition, all of the classes were 100% in Spanish. Each class values between two and four credits, depending on how many hours of class time are involved. I took five classes: Historia Moderna de Chile, Pobreza, Español, Literatura, and Macroeconomía. In order to receive credit at Hamline, I merely had to pass the classes. Passing meant earning a four on a grading scale between one and seven. In my opinion, the classes would be fairly basic and not require a lot of effort, but the fact that they were in Spanish required me to struggle through the semester.
Academic structure was far different from what I was used to at Hamline. Sometime professors wouldn’t show up. Students would generally wait 20 minutes before heading out. When classes were held, students would, at times, talk, play music, and generally be rowdy. Somedays I felt like I’d returned to junior high. As for the professors, teaching styles and attitudes varied just as the do in the United States.
The university itself was set up in a way I was very unaccustomed to after Hamline, which fits onto two city blocks. La Catolica is designed so that each academic department has it’s own building, or shares with another department. All classes for that department are held in the building and professors have their offices there. Each building has a library, or multiple libraries devoted to separate departments. This alone is so different from Hamline where interdepartmentalism is encouraged. But to add to it, the buildings were spread throughout Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, with a cite in a city half way to Santiago.