Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 3: Go extracurricular

This is the third of my series of tips for exchange students in Chile. Here are my previous posts on the subject:

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

Tips or exchange students in Chile, Part 2: Academics

Part 1 includes a disclaimer you should read if you plan on taking any of my advice seriously. Here’s the short version: Everyone has different goals when studying abroad, all equally valid. The tips I offer on this blog are things that helped me have a fantastic experience and are directed primarily at people who arrive in Chile with objectives similar to my own. In other words, my advice – like that erectile dysfunction pill you just saw advertised on TV – is not for everyone.

Last time, I offered some pointers on how to have a successful academic experience in Chile. In this post, I’ll make a case for what I believe is one of the primary ways to have a successful non-academic experience in Chile: signing up for an extracurricular.

Even if doing so earns you a giant bruise. I spent several weeks of my second semester in Chile with a rock-hard purple knob under the skin of my shin. I remember wincing as my host father, a physical therapist, palpated it for a few seconds before diagnosing a hematoma. The thing hurt – but it was worth it.

My multicolored injury was the direct result of one of the best decisions I made while studying abroad: enrolling in a judo class at one of the Chilean universities where I was studying. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’d overburdened myself academically my first semester and was hoping that signing up for a sports class would help me lighten my load and be more social. I’d never done judo before. I chose it because it fit comfortably into my schedule, not because I had any reason to believe I would be particularly good at it.

And I wasn’t. I spent four hours a week being slammed onto the mat and held there in a lock. My one advantage was scrappiness; I couldn’t take anyone down, but I could wriggle as if my life depended on it. It was during one such struggle that a particularly bony classmate ended up smashing an elbow into my shin.

Luckily for me, I was permitted short breaks between ass kickings. Between waiting in line to tumble and setting up and disassembling the mat, my classmates and I had plenty of time to get to know one another. The fact that nearly all of us were stumbling home in pain every night provided a good conversation starter.

We continued developing our friendships off the mat. We went out for beer after class and organized barbecues on the weekends – a few of us even hit the dance floor at Santiago’s notorious Blondie night club.

I doubt any of this would have happened in my dialectology course. The laid-back dynamic of the judo class fostered this kind of interaction – and it ended up making my semester. The hematoma was a small price to pay for all the laughter I shared with my partners in pain, one of whom remains a very close friend of mine to this day.

A year or two ago, the university bulldozed the gym where my judo class convened. I teared up when I heard.

It was actually a desire to write about how important judo was to my time in Chile that gave me the idea to write these “Tips for exchange students in Chile” posts in the first place. The afternoons I spent getting slammed convinced me that participating in some kind of extracurricular activity is key to having a successful study abroad experience.

The fact that clubs and sports aren’t as visible a presence on university campuses in Chile as they are in the States – you probably won’t find bulletin boards plastered with neon fliers for bhangra dance workshops and beer-fueled kickball tournaments – doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to become involved in. Below are just a few of the activities that will help you explore your interests, meet people who share them and become part of a community in your host city.

1. Recreational classes. Many Chilean universities offer courses in sports, dance, art and even mountaineering. The latter, along with Latin dance, was particularly popular among my fellow exchange students at the Universidad Católica; a lot of Chileans sign up, too. Not only do classes like these allow you to relieve the stress you’ve accumulated while hunching over books, squinting at maps of bus routes and trying to teach baristas how to spell your name, but they provide an ideal space within which to make friends.

Whether or not you’ll receive college credit for these classes depends on your home university’s policies. My school didn’t give me credit for my judo class – I was only able to convince the registrar’s office to allow me to enroll in it because I was ahead on credits – but other colleges may have.

If you can’t find a class you like at your host school, check out those offered by cultural centers, the local municipal government, or independent groups. Tiny grassroots cultural collectives are renowned for offering an array of free or low-cost classes. For example, a gringo friend of mine in Santiago recently made the (downright badass) decision to enroll in an independent poetry workshop – in Spanish. A few years ago, I took photography and co-taught an English class at a squat (okupa).

A brief note on okupas: They provide a range of critical perspectives and can bring artistic learning and performance within the reach of those whose access would otherwise be limited. They are also technically illegal. Police raid them sometimes. Additionally, they tend to be housed in structures that aren’t subjected to routine safety checks. While I encourage exploration of grassroots cultural initiatives, I would advise you to think twice before doing anything that would put your immigration status or physical wellbeing at risk. If you feel uncomfortable or get bad vibes anywhere, leave.

2. Sports teams. Some Chilean schools participate in inter-university and intramural sports leagues. For example, I have a Chilean friend who plays for her department’s team in the Universidad de Chile’s intramural women’s basketball league. I never joined any sports teams while in Chile, but I know some former exchange students who did. (Could one of them please expand on this in the comments section, please?) There are also some neighborhood soccer leagues in Santiago, but I don’t know much about them and am not sure what kind of opportunities they offer for female players.

3. Volunteering. There’s a plethora (love that word) of ways for exchange students to participate in volunteer projects in Chile. Organizations like Cruz Roja, Un Techo Para Chile and Hogar de Cristo – to name just a few of the big ones -- rely heavily on college students to fill their ranks. Additionally, student federations – like the Universidad de Chile’s FECh and the Universidad Católica’s FEUC – organize community service trips during school breaks. I went on one such trip a few years ago (after graduating from college) and found myself wishing I’d had the good sense to do something similar during my summer break (December through February) the year I studied abroad. Not only did I get to know a new area of the country and lend a hand there, but I also met dozens of students passionate about making a difference.

If you’re not going to be around during break, find out if your host school has a group that does volunteer work on weekends. One such group is Remolino, an NGO run by Universidad de Chile students.

These days, Chile needs volunteers more than ever. So get out there and do your part – and meet other conscientious people in the process.

4. Religious organizations. I have to admit that I don’t know much about these – taking an Arabic class at an Orthodox church was as close as I got – but I do know they’re around. A number of students from my exchange program got involved with a citywide campus ministry group and made a lot of friends that way. The Universidad Católica organizes mission trips during school breaks.

When it comes to religion, Santiago is more diverse than meets the eye; for example, it has a Jewish community, Greek and Arab Orthodox churches and at least one mosque. Finding communities that are neither Catholic nor Protestant just takes a bit more looking.

One more word of advice: Don’t just go by what I have to say. Check out the tips Heather, Andrea and K (can I use your full first name?) – all of whom have studied in Chile or are currently doing so – have posted on their blogs.

Former exchange students of the world, unite in the comments section!


lydia said...

I fully agreed with this post. Joining this stuff is a great way to get to know people. The mountaneering class here in valpo has become so desired that the limited the # of exchange students that can join!!

I also agree about the okupas, but there are rarely consequences even if police do come. The most popular one in valpo has been the home for friends of ours for at least 4 years, its huuuge, and very structurally unsafe, but they hold some great parties and I;ve participated in many amazing classes that take part inside. I find that crowd to be much more interesting and open that the typical university student crowd anyway. (Though once we did get locked down inside by the police- i was definitely afraid of the outcome, but it was fine).

My only comment is that intramurals are kind of hit and miss, because of the level of seriousness. Some people obviously have a love for the activity and make it fun and such, but i was on two teams (soccer and basketball) where the chilean teams rarely showed up, so it was a time investment for me and in the end i spent most of the time with other gringas, not getting ot play anything. In basketball we made it to the championships purely on forfits by every other chilean team!! But i know the semester before us didnt have quite as bad of a record.

Here in valpo the indie, afro, artsy scene is for sure the way to go if you want your social life to open up to unique activities. there are some really cool classes to take (if you find out about them!)

KM said...

i'd always wished that i'd been more adventurous. never been much of an extra curriculars type chick...i've really enjoyed your past 3 posts - even inspired one of my own!