Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 2: Academics

This is the second installment of my new series of tips for foreign exchange students in Chile. You can read my first entry -- and a disclaimer -- here. Other former exchange students have left their own tips in the comments section, so be sure to check them out.

Since being an exchange student typically involves studying, I thought I'd offer some tips on how to handle academics in Chile. Before I start, I'd like to reiterate the word of caution I issued in my previous post: What I'm about to suggest are things that worked for me when I was an undergraduate exchange student in Santiago a few years ago. I was a Spanish major, and one of my goals for my study abroad experience was academic growth. Not every exchange student has -- nor should have -- this same goal. For example, plenty of exchange students decide to minimize their academic load in order to have more free time to explore, travel and -- yes -- party. Students who wish to go this route may not find the following tips useful. However, those who want to have academics be a (relatively) significant part of their study abroad experience might benefit from them.

I see a number of benefits to the latter path. Virtually no one wants to spend all of his or her time abroad locked in a library -- I certainly wouldn't recommend it -- but there are important reasons to take school seriously while in Chile. First of all, many exchange students have immediate access to Chile's top-ranked universities, among them the Universidad de Chile and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. These schools have great professors who offer quality classes; in other words, you can learn a lot. What's more, many Chilean college hopefuls would give their right arms to get into the selective schools that exchange students are accepted into automatically. So respect them and their professors by acknowledging the opportunity you’ve been given and make an effort. You don’t have to spend every night studying till dawn: Just take things seriously and be willing to learn. If you show up to class and don’t blow off your assignments, you’ll give your fellow exchange students a good name and help prove that “los de intercambio” can be a positive -- as opposed to irritating -- addition to campus life.

Additionally, Chilean university students do a lot of group work. This gives you both the obligation to pull your weight and the opportunity to make Chilean friends. I myself became good friends with a Chilean student with whom I worked on a few group projects; had we not been committed to working hard together, this probably wouldn't have happened. Plus, it goes without saying that involving yourself in group work with Chileans -- in addition to going to class, doing the reading and completing your assignments -- is a great way to improve your Spanish skills.

Finally, putting in a decent academic effort while studying abroad in Chile can help you out in the future. The effect your grades will have on your final transcript depends on your home university's policies. My university printed my Chilean grades on my transcript but did not factor them into my GPA. Other universities don't differentiate between grades earned at home and grades earned abroad: All of them end up in your average. Regardless of how your school does it, it's obvious that decent grades -- and the possibility of getting a recommendation, if need be, from one of your Chilean professors -- can't hurt when it comes time to apply for jobs or to grad school. I honestly don't think I would have gotten into the Ph.D. program I'm about to start had I returned from my year abroad with nothing to show for myself academically.

I don't think I would have applied, either. I finished my sophomore year in college (relatively) convinced that I wanted to go to law school. Only after taking some challenging courses in Chile -- and challenging myself to do well in them -- did I recognize that I was more of a literature person after all. Had I not arrived at this realization, my post-college life probably would have been very different: no Ecuador, no Chilean redux, and a lot less writing. A lot of people expect their study abroad experience to have a profound effect on their world view; if you take it seriously and are open minded, it can turn your life plans upside down as well.

Convinced? If so, I humbly submit the following recommendations:

1. Directly matriculate if you can. Direct matriculation means enrolling in normal classes at Chilean universities as opposed to taking courses offered by your exchange program or designed specifically for foreigners. Not only will you probably be more challenged in regular classes, but you'll meet more Chileans and get an idea of how a Chilean university works.

Obviously, this isn't always feasible if you don't speak much Spanish when you arrive in Chile. This is all the more reason to study abroad for two semesters: After spending the first term getting your language level up, you can directly matriculate the second.

To be clear, I think courses offered by exchange programs can be valuable too. My program offered a great service learning class that I'm very glad I took. However, directly matriculating provides you with a chance to expand your Chilean world -- academically, socially, culturally and geographically (see #4) -- that I believe should be seized.

2. If you choose to directly matriculate, don't limit yourself to "gringo classes." You know the ones. They have titles like "Chilean history and culture" and "Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral." In theory, they're open to both Chileans and foreigners, but you don't see many of the former there. I'm not saying you have to avoid these classes completely: After all, they deal with material that interests a lot of exchange students. I've also heard foreign students say they can offer a welcome break from an otherwise challenging course lineup. No shame in that. However, they are, unsurprisingly, full of other exchange students, meaning interaction with Chileans will be minimal and the temptation to revert to your native language strong. Therefore, you'll probably want to make sure that you don't fill your schedule exclusively with classes like these.

3. But don't stretch yourself too thin. After all, school is just one part of what Chile has to offer. You'll want to make sure you have enough time to explore your host city, do some traveling and make new friends. You know, to have fun and what not.

My first semester in Chile, I took on a bit too much. Not only did my U.S. university require me to take five classes, but -- as a Chilean classmate observed and pointed out to me -- I felt I had to prove something. I wanted to show everyone that the stereotype of the perennially partying, rarely present exchange student was off base; I wanted to show everyone that exchange students were capable of anything. As you might imagine, this required a lot of studying. Don't get me wrong; I was finding time to have fun, but I found myself wishing I could have found more.

While planning my schedule for the following semester, I made sure not to overburden myself. The main way in which I did this was by taking a sports class, which I'll post about in detail in a future entry. Not only did I have less homework, but I was socializing and relieving stress at the same time. Highly recommended!

4. Careful with campus hopping. The physical organization of universities in Santiago is different from that of many U.S. colleges. Instead of concentrating nearly all departments on a single campus, Santiago schools (with a few exceptions) are divided into a number of campuses scattered throughout the city, sometimes very far from one another. At the Universidad de Chile, for example, health sciences majors study in Independencia, on Santiago's north side, while veterinary and agriculture students have class in La Pintana, on the city's southern edge.

Many exchange students have the opportunity -- uncommon among their Chilean peers -- to take classes at any of their host university's campuses. Some are even allowed to take classes at multiple universities. This gives them the chance to experience the often intriguing differences between campus and schools -- and to see a lot of the city while they're at it. If you plan to take advantage of this possibility, be advised that a significant amount of travel time may be involved -- and plan accordingly. Don't leave such a small window between classes that you won't have time to check out a library book or talk to your professors or classmates before sprinting off to the bus stop.

Also, keep in mind that most Chilean students take the vast majority of their courses within their department and, as a result, spend most of their time together in one place. If you're constantly commuting between campuses, it can be difficult to integrate yourself into this dynamic. If you're interested in a particular department and want to get to know its students and professors, take a couple classes there and schedule them in such a way that you can stick around campus for a while. Even though Chilean students don't live on campus, there's a lot more to Chilean campus life than classes. Don't miss out on it because you're spending all day on the bus!

5. Make the first move. While exchange students may have been a novelty at Chilean universities several years ago, this is no longer the case. At the campuses where most exchange students end up, Chilean students are used to having foreigners around. In most cases, your classmates will have seen dozens like you before (no offense), so you won't exactly be a curiosity. They also will have noticed that many exchange students tend to stick together -- sad but true -- and limit their interactions with Chileans. As a result, they won't necessarily approach you to give you an unsolicited warm welcome and ask if there's anything you need.

But there obviously will be things you'll need. You'll need, for example, to have someone explain where you can find Thursday's reading, how to get photocopies made (essential knowledge for any student in Chile), and -- of course -- what the professor just said. Chilean students, in my experience, are usually more than willing to help. In most cases, though, you'll have to make the first move. It's nothing personal; they just won't know you want to talk to them unless you do. So don't be shy about asking a classmate to accompany you to the photocopy machine after class; you're not being a nuisance. He or she is probably heading there anyway. Not only will you learn how to get your copies, but you'll also have an in when group project time rolls around.

And as long as you've got the whole copier thing figured out, don't be ashamed to ask to photocopy a classmate's notes if you missed a class or didn't understand it. If you'd prefer an explanation, ask for one, either from a classmate, a T.A. (very common) or your professor. No one's expecting you to be perfect, so be assertive and ask away!

6. Be patient, keep an open mind, and have a sense of humor. Chilean universities are different from those in the States (and from those in other countries, I would imagine), so there will almost certainly be times when you'll feel a) frustrated b) confused c) overwhelmed or d) frustrated, confused and overwhelmed. Don't worry: If you're willing to laugh and ask for a hand, it'll pass before you know it.

Like before, I'd like to invite other former exchange students to leave their opinions and tips in the comments section. It's been great reading your feedback on my previous post, and I'm sure readers will appreciate your good advice. Please keep it coming!

4 comments:

Maeskizzle said...

wow! Great post! Very thorough and right on, as far as I know anyway. I didn't do any undergraduate studies in Chile, but it would have been fun!!!

The only thing I have to add, is sometimes in (graduate) classes, I would ask another student what the teacher just said and he/she wouldn't know either, hahahaha!! So it's not always just that you don't understand because its not your native language. Sometimes the natives don't understand each other either I find.

saludos

lydia said...

i was extremely disappointed in how unwelcome i felt in all group projects. doesnt seem like your case, but when i studied i remember a lot of people having trouble finding groups, ending up doing group projects alone or with other gringos in the end... or most often, realizing their group would meet and/or just do the whole project without even inviting or allowing them to help. this probably has something to do with the stereotype some people have about how gringos must be just here to party ... but i found it was necessary to really insist that you're wanting to do actual work, get together when they do, etc...otherwise you might get overlooked.

Abby said...

Again Leigh, you hit the nail on the head! Great post. I had one really great group project experience where the profe said we were the best group, and one like Lydia described, where the people met without me and didn't let me do anything. Finally, when I insisted on helping, they ended up blaming me for our "bad" grade (I think we got a 5) even though I had gotten close to full points on the section I wrote. Haha I guess I'm still a little bitter even after all this time. But that being said, I think it can be challenging to get close to Chilean classmates, but your suggestions are really good.

Kristen said...

Great advice! I studied for a semester last year at La Chile, and would just add a couple things:
1. I definitely agree that you should do direct enrollment in classes with Chileans. But even within that, there are some classes (especially in Humanidades) that have a lot of exchange students, while others in other facultades might have a lot less. It's easier to get to know Chilean students if you're the only foreigner in the class compared to one of 10 or so.
2. In class, don't sit only with other US exchange students, and don't speak English!! This sounds simple but I found it's what most exchange students did, and it really discourages Chilean students from trying to get to know you.
3. Try out a bunch of different classes the first couple of days, and then you can pick the ones that look most interesting/easiest to understand the professor/fewest exchange students in the class/etc.
4. Don't get frustrated when things are bureaucratic or disorganized, since that happens a lot! (for example, I didn't get my university ID until halfway through the semester, and my metro discount card would have been ready the day after I left the country!)