From US University to Argentine University, the differences, challenges and resources
As the first person in your family to attend college, you are a seasoned academic pioneer. How is this adjustment to yet another new academic system? Are you using skills you gained your first year on campus? Any unexpected surprises? What challenges have you encountered? How do you navigate having to learn a new system so quickly? What role (if any) has IFSA-Butler played in this adjustment?
The first thoughts that come to mind when I read this prompt are horrifying recollections of the dread, fear, frustration, and stress that plagued me, and almost every single one of my fellow program participants, during the first few weeks of “shopping”. To understand what I mean by that, let me explain to you how very different Argentina’s universities function from what I am used to at UW-Madison.
Back home, it is common, daresay, expected, for a student to change their major at least once, if not five, times during their undergraduate experience. Reflecting, I believe that part of that is the result of how most universities require well-rounded courses in order to graduate, no matter what the major. If you’re an Art Major, you will still need to take math classes, if you’re an Engineering Major, you will still take a speech class, if you major in Underwater Basket Weaving, you’ll still have participated in a social studies class. This well-roundedness exposes each student to a variety a materials and this “exploration” helps student confirm or discover what they are passionate about and/or talented in. Not to mention, if you do change majors, most of your credits will count towards some part of your new major, so switching is not always the end of the world. On the other hand, here, you pick a carera (a major), and then you stick with that and take classes focused solely on that subject area. Someone doing a literature carera won’t spend practically any time in a math class, and someone in a politics carera most likely will never get the opportunity to study art history and have it count towards graduating. Once they have picked a carera, if they were to decide they don’t like it, and they want to change, they start from scratch.
Being from a large university, I am used to beginning a semester without the expectation that I’ll know many, if any, people in my classes. There are so many students, and again, with the idea that people are taking classes outside of their major all the time, you don’t really start to recognize a group of people until you have moved up to more advanced courses in your major. Here, they essentially have the same group of people in their year of the carera and so they become a really tight-knit unit, and any foreigners are spotted immediately.
Another common aspect of a typical American university is the presence of a campus. All the buildings in close proximity, student housing, and so campus is its own bustling community, especially in Madison, WI, campus is its own massive bubble. Here, campuses don’t really exist. The buildings are spread out all over the city for some schools, and especially since most students will live at home all throughout college, dorm life isn’t really a thing. This makes commuting a huge pain. I had to adjust from a 15 minute walk to class to a 25 minute bus ride, plus another10 minutes walking, that’s on Thursdays. Tuesdays, I have a 45 minute commute on the subway, with 3 transfers, then about a 7 minute walk apart from that.
That’s some generic insight on how the university system is here. Now, through IFSA-Butler’s program, we are able to attend any of five universities, some public and some private. Each has their own unique way of organizing; some which are more effective than others. Our orientation included several presentations about the different universities, and schedules and class lists and titles and descriptions. I usually appreciate having options, but quite honestly, all of these universities and classes to choose from was extremely overwhelming. And to add to that, we get to choose as many as 15 different classes to “try out” at any of the universities, for a period of about 3 weeks. With so many different schedules that aren’t always clear, it’s easy to get confused. I had mapped out a schedule of classes I wanted to try, and my very first one I had understood to be Mondays and Wednesdays. I arrive that first Monday to discover it is Monday, Wednesday AND Friday, and that I had missed the Friday before that. Another class I wanted to try was really only scheduled for the opposite semester and so bit by bit my ideal trial schedule was chipped away at, mostly as the result of misunderstandings, and getting lost.
Preparing for college as a first generation student, I pored over my university’s websites. There was so much information available at the click of a mouse, and that was really one of my main resources. Here, information just isn’t out there like that, especially when what information IS there is in another language, it gets really confusing. Another resource that was extremely useful was living in the Multicultural Learning Community. I was surrounded by a lot of other first generation college students and we were a great support system for each other and as a community became our own family. So I would say the biggest help with learning how to navigate college was knowing resources were available to me.
One of the skills I learned as a first generation college student was to map out as much as I possibly could my schedule and to be flexible with the different events and such that came up. This is especially useful here, where the syllabi I have received from the public universities convey no clear due dates or assignment descriptions. One of my classes is continually requiring me to buy a new book a week, which seem to just be continually popping up with no warning.
Flexibility is extremely necessary here, but it’s not always easy. Those first few weeks of orientation with IFSA-Butler really pushed us all to adapt quickly to this new pace of life, which at times is very slow and you worry that you’re missing something, and at other times can stack up with new tasks that you’re not entirely sure how to complete. The staff here has been extremely supportive, answering our frantic questions, clarifying the many things that don’t seem to make sense, building our confidence as bilingual students.
It’s been hard, and I’m still not always sure what exactly is going on, but I know how to find the resources available to me that will help me out when I need it.
Thanks for reading!