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Post 6: Education: Crazy Classes in Chile

I am currently attending Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (PUCV), taking advanced spanish, math, economics, literature and dance (!). I knew that going to school at a large Chilean university in the middle of a city would be very different from my usual liberal arts experience at Bowdoin College. But I had no idea how far reaching the differences would be.

There were some differences that I was expecting: Spanish language classes, a large university, and Chilean students.

Although it was tiring and hard to understand the Spanish at first, and reading still takes a lot of effort, the language barrier has been the easiest thing to get used to. My spanish comprehension and other language skills have improved immensely. Often the hardest parts to understand are my classmate’s questions and comments, since they speak faster and annunciate less than professors.

The large, spread out nature of my school, has been annoying at times, with a daily half hour commute and classes in three locations. Still, it helped me get to know my way around the two cities and how to use the public transportation.

This is where I take my math class. A view of how urban PUCV is.

My Chilean classmates have varied, from quiet and a little closed off to very friendly in some classes. In general, if I reach out or ask for help I have found that they are happy to assist. One interesting thing about PUCV and most Chilean schools is that they take almost all of their classes with others from their major, and as a result already have a large group of friends in the class. As a result, my “general” classes have often been the friendliest.

Then came the differences I didn’t expect, and the ones that are harder to adjust to: the changes in attitude towards class and the politics of education in Chile.

Education is not taken for granted in Chile, it is the center of a national debate and one of the most contentious issues. To summarize a very long story, education is unequal and expensive in Chile. Public schools are of poor quality and university students at both public and private institutions graduate with huge levels of debt. Picture the situation with colleges US but with even less financial aid and even worse income inequality. So, students are highly organized and have been protesting for years. They are fighting for free education, quality education, and increased wages and benefits for teachers. They strike, march, and protest (and it seems like they tag every building with their slogans).

This is a high school protest that was happening a month or so ago near my house. The school was “taken over” with signs and chairs stuck into the gate. The sign has a few of the many slogans, including “Fight, fight, and fight”

To explain the politics, successes, and challenges of this movement are beyond the scope of this post and probably my abilities. However it is extremely fascinating and feel free to read more here or here.

Currently, energy and passion on these issues is waning after years and only small victories, and school is continuing. Still, there are still frequent 1-3 day strikes, often with little notice.

The effect of all the student organizing that the power in the university is allocated a different way than it is in the US. Here are a few examples of common occurrences as I go to my classes:

–       Class is cancelled due to a strike

–       Students skip class, come in late ,and leave while class is still going on

–       Students are blatantly on their phones during class

–       Students, acting together as a class, tell the professor that they can’t do a certain paper, test, or project and often succeed in getting it postponed

–       Professors ask students whether class is likely to happen the next week

–       Students are caught blatantly cheating on papers, or half of the class fails a test

In general, the students here feel more empowered to argue against and opt out of what they don’t agree with. While this could be a good thing, it often leads to disrespect towards the professors and causes classes to fall behind schedule. The unpredictability and sheer number of classes cancelled is also alarming. My math teacher estimated we’d missed at least 7 sessions of his class, and that is not uncommon.  It frustrates me not to know whether I will have class today or this week. Finally, I must admit that my inner nerd gets mad when a student comes in half an hour late, interrupting class to shake hands and kiss his friends before sitting down.

Students hanging out outside one of my other class locations, one with a more campus-y feel. Class was cancelled all morning on this day.

Overall, classes have been far from my favorite part of living here. I’m excited to return next semester to my tiny college with a beautiful campus and brilliant, engaged students. But while many of my observations are negative, I know that my perspective as an visitor is limited, and that I don’t understand all of the factors. The challenge of finding my place at PUCV has taught me a lot both within my classes and about Chile and its struggle for high quality education.

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