Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 1: Stick around

I've been wanting to blog my tips for exchange students in Chile for a while now. If people out there are anything like me -- who's been googling phrases like "my NYC apartment search" for months now -- they do at least a mild amount of Web scouring before moving to a new place. I'm guessing that a number of future exchange students in Chile -- who should be packing up and shipping south right about now -- are currently doing this very thing. It's in honor of them -- and of anyone else who happens to be interested -- that I present the first of my tips for foreign students in Chile: Stick around.

Before I get into what I mean by this, I'll start with a disclaimer. I spent two undergraduate semesters studying in Santiago a few years ago. I loved it. This leads me -- correctly or not -- to believe that I did something right and am therefore entitled to give advice.

I was so happy with my study abroad experience because I was able to meet the goals I set for myself before leaving home, which included the following:

- Deepen my knowledge and understanding of Chilean culture and history.
-Grow academically by taking challenging courses that would allow me to achieve the previous goal and advance as a Spanish major.
- Experience and integrate myself into -- to the degree that such a thing is possible -- the daily life of a university student in Santiago. If we're going to get rigorous, I should acknowledge that there is no such thing as a uniform "daily life of a university student in Santiago" since Chilean students, like students everywhere, come from a wide variety of backgrounds and face unique sets of circumstances. Still, I believe many of these students share certain experiences as a result of being inserted in a specific educational system inside a larger social and cultural context, and I wanted to have these experiences, too.
-Make Chilean friends.
-Have a blast.

Of course, the fact that these were my goals does not mean that they will or should be shared by other exchange students. I met plenty of foreign students who were much more interested in the Chilean wilderness than the Chilean classroom, which I find perfectly valid. Had these students done the things that made my study abroad experience so marvelous for me, they probably would have been miserable. In short, the tips I give on this blog will probably only be useful to those who have study abroad goals similar to my own. I'm not saying these goals are better than others; part of what's so great about being a foreign student is that you meet a vast array of people with different backgrounds and interests. I'm just clarifying that my advice is meant to help foreign students in Chile meet objectives that might not be shared by everyone.

If you plan to study in Chile and share one of the goals listed above, I recommend you stick around -- in a number of ways. First, if you can, try to stay in Chile for a full academic year. I know this isn't possible for everyone, especially for students in prerequisite-heavy programs like premed (although I do know a premed student who pulled it off). I also know that plenty of exchange students leave Chile enriched and fulfilled after one semester.

In my case, however, staying for a full year was the best decision I could have made. I feel that I truly hit my stride in Santiago -- in terms of being comfortable enough with the language, city, culture and education system to feel I was living there instead of simply visiting -- about a month and half before the end of my first semester. Things just clicked. I raised my hand to comment in class, zig-zagged confidently through the city aboard its speeding yellow buses, and noticed that my conversations with Chileans were much more spontaneous and animated than when I'd first arrived (although I continued to make my fair share of mistakes and by no means understood everything!). As far as my social life went, I wasn't surrounded by thousands of Chilean friends, but I was becoming close to those I did have. Knowing that I would be around for a while allowed me to invest the time and effort necessary to begin building long-term friendships. Additionally, the fact that I was feeling increasingly competent linguistically and culturally made me more confident in social situations involving meeting new people.

I would have been devastated to have had to leave Chile just a few short weeks after all of this fell into place. Luckily, I had another six months to put everything I'd learned to work -- and it was worth it.

Whether or not you can stick around in Chile for a full year, you can decide where to spend the time you do have. I humbly suggest that you spend a great deal of it in the city where you're studying. Yes, this contradicts the commonly held belief that exchange students should take advantage of any and all opportunities to travel. After all, it's not every day you're within bussing distance of Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil, not to mention all the phenomenal natural and cultural attractions Chile has to offer, right?

Some of my fellow exchange students in Santiago traveled outside of the city almost every weekend. If your goals for your Chilean experience include maximizing travel and bonding with the other members of your exchange group, you should do this. If, on the other hand, you're more of an "integrate into daily life" type and are looking to make friends with Chileans in your host city, you should try to stay in town -- at least some of the time.

There are a few reasons for this. First of all, if you're gone every weekend, you're limiting your possibilities for social interaction with Chileans (unless, of course, you're traveling with them). Chilean students who are from the city where they go to school tend to stick around most weekends, and you'll have more opportunities to socialize with them if you do, too.

Second, leaving your host city every weekend can warp your perception of it. If you study in Santiago during the week and flee from it as soon as your last class gets out, you're diminishing your chances of associating Santiago with anything other than weekday stress. If, on the other hand, you use some of your weekends to explore and experience Santiago -- by visiting its parks, markets, museums and neighborhoods, peoplewatching at its sidewalk cafes or dancing at its salsa clubs -- you might just begin to see Santiago as a place to work and play.

I'm not saying exchange students should never travel. I think they absolutely should if they can. It was by traveling with other exchange students that I discovered some of my favorite places in Chile, Chiloé being the reining champion of them all. However, I spent the vast majority of my weekends in Santiago and, as a result, got to know my host city and befriend a number of its inhabitants. When it comes to studying abroad, I would recommend that the same policy be applied to traveling as to drinking pisco: Do it in moderation.

This is especially important to keep in mind, I think, for exchange students in Santiago, who are exposed early on to the notion that the "real Chile" -- the only Chile worth experiencing -- lies outside the capital. While I agree that exchange students -- and all visitors -- should make an effort to see what the rest of Chile has to offer, I think the idea that Santiago is little more than a bland jumping-off point is completely absurd. Santiago is interesting. Santiago is fun. You just have to give it a chance. And it's hard to do that if you spend all your down time elsewhere.

Finally, if you're staying with a host family, I recommend sticking around there, too -- at least a couple nights a week. When you're in a new city in a new country -- especially one where eating out is substantially cheaper than it is at home -- it's tempting to skip your host parents' homecooked meals in favor of bar or restaurant fare. And, by all means, you should go out. I would be contradicting my previous point if I didn't encourage you to explore your host city's culinary offerings. But make sure you eat some meals with your host family, too. As awkward as your interactions with your host family may seem to you, chances are that they're hosting you because they want to -- there are other ways to make extra cash, after all -- and are genuinely interested in hearing about your experiences in their country. If my interactions with my own Chilean host family are any indication, they're also eager to have a positive impact on your stay. So at least let them try by spending some time with them. You could learn a lot about Chile in the process.

I've seen it happen: exchange students leaving Santiago disappointed because they felt they hadn't forged a connection with the city and its residents. Maybe they just didn't like Santiago. That's fine. But I think a great deal of this disappointment could have been avoided had these people stayed stationary long enough to appreciate what was around them. The entire concept of foreign study is based on mobility, but it's impossible to drink everything in if you never allow yourself to stand still.

Most of the foreigner-in-Chile bloggers I know were exchange students at some point, so I hope they'll comment on this entry to let me know whether or not they agree with the views I've expressed here. Former exchange students in Chile, do you have any other tips to offer those who are about to embark on the same journey? Please share!


Katherine said...

Hi Leigh!

I really appreciate, and totally agree with, this post. You and I overlapped for a semester in Chile 5 years ago, and I think we had pretty opposite experiences. I did the "maximize travel" thing, and had a fantastic time... while I was traveling. However, since I was a student, I was in school the vast majority of my time. And I was miserable there. I think that semester was possibly the loneliest I have ever been in my life, and it was entirely my own fault.

Now that there are 5 whole years separating me from that experience, and now that I have had truly excellent experiences traveling and living abroad, I can look at it with more of a "hindsight is 20-20" sort of attitude rather than wallowing in self-pity!

If I could mention a few things I would have done differently:

First, live with a host family. I lived in privately-owned "student housing," which was a huge mistake. It was mostly English-speaking foreigners, which made learning Spanish more difficult and immersing myself in the local culture next to impossible. The Chileans that lived there didn't have family in the capital, and so left on the weekends. And it seemed that the living situation brought out the worst in "student culture" more generally.

If you don't live with a host family, do some research about where you'd like to live in the city. I lived about an hour's commute from the University (this was pre-Metro in Ñuñoa), in a very residential neighborhood. I think I would have been happier (and more likely to get out and explore) if I had been closer to the city center. But someone else may feel the complete opposite, and it's worth doing some research first.

Second, seek out activities that you enjoy doing at home. That was the one thing I did *right*, at least to some extent. I love outdoor activities at home, and I joined the rock-climbing club at PUC. I also joined a local gym, where almost no foreigners went, and made friends in the spinning and yoga classes. I wish I had gotten to know those people more, but since I was traveling on the weekends it made it difficult to join in the rock climbing trips, or to find an outdoor cycling club, etc. I wish I had taken the mountaineering class... :)

Third: Avoid US-based chain establishments. That's my general rule while traveling, and I'm generally pretty good at following it. But in Chile I was so homesick that I ended up at Starbucks (with many of my program-mates) nearly every day after class. BAD IDEA. Be strong! Resist temptation!!

I'm getting ready to move to Guatemala for a year and a half, which is a place that I've really come to love and feel a connection to in a way that I wish I had in Chile. Someday, I'd love to go back to Santiago to see how both it and I have changed.

Abby said...

Great tips! I agree with them all. I SO wish I could have stayed a whole year studying here, but because I came second semester, I couldn't because my university doesn't allow seniors to study abroad.

Do you mind if I share this with the study abroad students I work with?

Leigh said...

Hi Katherine! I remember our adventures in linguistics. I'm jealous of all the travel you've been doing since then. Since you're a seasoned globetrotter, I'm really glad that you shared your thoughts here. I think your tips are great. I'm sorry you weren't happy in school but am glad that your recent travels have been going so well!

Your thoughts on Guatemala made me think about how my ideas about travel have changed a lot over the past few years. Whereas before I wanted to see as many new places as possible, these days I prefer staying in one place for an extended period of time and really getting to know it well.

What will you be doing in Guatemala? Will you be blogging?!

And hi, Abby! Of course you can share this with your students (you have the best job).

jackie said...

Sounds like you have the travel bug! I would love for you to share your insights and travel advice on, an online community for women travelers.

Hope to hear from you soon!

sarabeck said...

My best advice would be to ·"go with the flow" and "be easy on yourself". Too many of the students I studied with got so uptight about the little cultural differences; they would freeze up when someone went to kiss their cheek; they couldn't understand the different meal times (we Minnesotans eat so early); and finally they let their frustrations be known to their Chilean hosts. The go easy on yourself one means that you will be adjusting to a new language, new city, new culture, new food, new EVERYTHING so you are bound to have some road bumps, and not understand things and embarass yourself...probably a lot. Own it. It's probably going to be the only time in your life when you have a legit excuse (like a get out of jail free card) to make *almost any* mistake and then blame it on cultural adjustment.

Sarah said...

My advice would be, don't fall in love with someone in the US right before you leave for Chile. This happened to me about six months before I left, and it made it so hard to be away. It completely exacerbated any homesickness I might have already had to deal with. And instead of sticking around and traveling after the semester ended, I just wanted to go home and be with my love. Of course now, nine years later, we are married and just as much in love as we were then, and I still got to have my semester in Chile. I guess it all worked out in the end.
I definitely agree with the advice about spending time with your host family and not spending too much time with other exchange students. I was lucky enough to become very close to two families - my host family and a family from Graneros that I stayed with during our orientation, and visited several more times throughout the semester. These two families were by far the most meaningful part of my experience in Chile.
Oh, also taking a ballroom dance class turned out to be a great way to actually interact with Chilean students. In my other classes we were just sitting and taking notes and it was hard to get a conversation going. The dance class had a lot of exchange students, but it had a lot of Chilean students too and we all danced and talked with each other.
And by the way, I love your blog!

Kyle said...

I agree with all you said, though I think it is important to consider what you want to get out of study abroad, because some people do come for a semester just to use the country as a jumping off point to explore the rest of South America. That's totally valid as well and a ton can be learned from traveling to other places.

That being said, I was not one of those people. I had enough money for one trip to San Pedro de Atacama during my whole time here!