Is it June already?!
The view from the top of Cerro San Cristobal is nothing short of breathtaking, with the Andes Mountains standing majestically behind the Santiago skyline. I have now had the pleasure of living in this Latin American metropolis for the past few months, and this city landmark has become my preferential location when I need time for personal reflection. Before coming to Chile, I knew that this country was a major exporter of fruit and vine, and I vaguely recognized the name Pinochet. But to be honest, that was the extent of my knowledge. Four months later, my concept of Chile has been completely transformed, as I learn new information about this South American treasure each and every day. Although my knowledge of this country prior to this experience was admittedly scant, my main reasons for coming to study abroad in Chile were to improve my Spanish-speaking ability and show my capability to live abroad and be independent. But in the process of accomplishing these goals, I have undergone a significant transformation, in the personal, professional, and academic sense.
For the first time in my life, I have stepped outside of my comfort zone to try something new, and I couldn’t be happier about that decision. I left behind all of my friends, family, and classmates to go to a relatively unpopular study abroad location, without having any idea what to expect. But in all honesty, I didn’t experience any type of culture shock upon my arrival. Ever since I landed in Santiago, I have been meeting new people all the time, and I feel that I have become more confident and social because of this experience. In the IFSA-Butler study Chile study abroad program, there are 16 other students from all over the United States, and the group is quite eclectic, in terms of personality, background, style, and interests. But everybody, including myself, has been extremely friendly and outgoing from the beginning, making this experience even more enjoyable. During this time, I have also been living with a host mother, who is an art teacher, and her daughter, who is in high school. The idea of living with a host family made me a little nervous, because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to adapt to their living situation. However, I realized that I was more adjustable than I thought. Moreover, I have developed a wonderful relationship with my host mom and host sister, and they are both very considerate and helpful, making me realize that I had nothing to worry about. In addition to this, I have also had the pleasure of meeting many Chileans, and I have concluded that the cultural divide between the United States or Chile, or any two cultures for that matter, is not that big. My Chilean friends and I like the same music and laugh at the same jokes, showing that we are really not that different from one another. But I have also had great experiences through my volunteer program.
Through the English Opens Doors Program, which is run by the Chilean Ministry of Education, I have had the privilege of teaching English to high school students. This was an interesting opportunity for me because I was the first volunteer that had ever come to this school, meaning that these students had never interacted with a native English speaker before. Needless to say, they were extremely interested to talk to me because I could teach them the colloquialisms of the language as well as the grammar. Furthermore, since I was around the same age as them, I was able to become friends with these students. Unfortunately, the teachers at this school are currently on strike because the municipality has not properly distributed the funds to the local schools, leaving the teachers without the necessary resources to perform their jobs. But I am looking forward to the resolution of this strike so that I can return back to the school. In addition to this professional volunteer experience, I have been taking academic courses in the history of contemporary Chile, the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, Spanish language, and intercultural health. The process of picking classes and adjusting to the styles of the professors, who teach in Spanish, was slightly difficult at first because I had to learn the workings of the Chilean university educational system. But this has also been a learning experience for me. Essentially, I had to be independent and deal with any problems that I had in my classes on my own because there was no advisor or tutor to help me along the way.
As the program comes to a close, I feel satisfied because I have proven to myself that I can survive in another country on my own. As for my other goal, I still wouldn’t say that I am completely fluent in Spanish, but there is no doubt that my language skills have improved drastically. My pronunciation improved because I was forced to speak Spanish everyday, especially considering the low percentage of Chileans who speak English. Most importantly, I now have the confidence to speak Spanish, and I am able to communicate successfully with any Spanish speaker.
My only regret about this experience is that I didn’t travel as much as I could have because of my academic course load. To be honest, I have spent quite a bit of time studying, which is not what I expected before coming. But in general I tend to be more serious about my academics, and at times, this can be a fault. It makes me sad to think that in a few weeks, my study abroad experience will be over. But at the same time, I hope that I can share my experience with others upon my return to the United States. There is so much to learn about the world in which we live, but we will never know until we step outside of our own backyard, and this step is crucial for our development as human beings.