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Higher Ed in Chile Pt. 1: La U vs. La Católica

This week I’ve been asked to describe higher education in Chile. I’ve broken it up into five sections, starting with this profile of Chile’s most (in)famous universities.

Asamblea

When the mainstream media in the United States reports on higher education, it tends to focus on elite schools and thus ignore the pressing issues that most college students face.

‘College,’ in the mainstream media, seems to mean people in their late teens and early 20s living in dorms, going to parties, studying English (or maybe pre-med) and emerging four years later with a degree and an unpaid internship. But that image, never truly representative, is increasingly disconnected from reality. Nearly half of all college students attend community colleges; among those at four-year schools, nearly a quarter attend part time and about the same share are 25 or older. In total, less than a third of U.S. undergraduates are “traditional” students in the sense that they are full-time, degree-seeking students at primarily residential four-year colleges. — Ben Casselman, “Shut Up About Harvard

Unfortunately, this blog post won’t break with journalists’, screenwriters’ and politicians’ tradition of not shutting up about Harvard. This is because I’m an Ivy Leaguer at the best university in Chile, and other Santiago-bound study abroad students will also be welcomed by the top de top of Chilean academia. So that’s my disclaimer: I don’t know the entire education system firsthand, so I’m writing about my own elite experience.

Elite Uni

Students at both Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and the Universidad de Chile assure me that their school is the Harvard of Chile, although it seems like the former is more of a UC Berkeley.

The Universidad de Chile (a.k.a. the U) shares Harvard’s long history of academic preeminence and illustrious alumni, but it lacks its 36-billion dollar endowment. When it comes to chronic underfunding and leftist politics, however, the U is squarely in the UC Berkeley camp.

La Chile

Universidad de Chile has five campuses in Santiago, each with a different academic focus, financial state and student culture.  I spend most of my time in Campus Goméz Millas, home to humanities, social sciences and stray dogs. Each morning I walk the twenty-five minutes to campus and read the latest banner taped to the front gate (usually convoking a feminist march or public assembly about education reform) before greeting the guard as I enter. I yank out my headphones right away because friends, classmates or professors could flag me down from across the yard at any moment.

It’s a friendly, relaxed social space — the antithesis of Columbia’s quad, which is basically an open-air hallway packed with rushed undergraduates and in-the-way tourists. By five o’clock you can find circles of compañeros and compañeras uncapping domestic beer and rolling joints as they discuss communitarian psychology or play a round of Uno. (That’s right, the vibe here is so homey that students play the family card game Uno.)

Uno

Campus Goméz Millas is, however, also the site of frequent clashes with the police. It’s so routine that the cops keep their armored tanks stationed at the McDonald’s just one block away and some administrators keep gas masks in their office filing cabinets. I’m not sure if these skirmishes, which almost seem like a choreographed dance between the ninja-like anarchists and the Ninja Turtle-like riot police, lead to mala onda (bad vibes) or more compañerismo (camaraderie). Friendships are strengthened by shared experience and common enemies, and for that students have tear gas and cops. For more on such campus protests, see my photo essay.

While the bathrooms in the lesser-funded departments of the U lack toilet paper and may have “I ♡ Trotsky” carved into the wall, the bathrooms of La Católica are like the rest of the university: well-resourced and spotless.

Like Harvard, La Católica is an elite, expensive and conservative institution with a budding liberalism in the student body. (Last year a leftist party was elected to student government for just the third time in over one hundred years.)  But unlike Harvard, La Católica is, well, Catholic. Not only is there a cross hanging in the corner of each classroom, but the rector of the university publishes statements like “La Católica opposes abortion” in the national newspaper without consulting any students beforehand.

While some students are Bible-thumpers like the administrators, there are also many students whose closest contact with the Holy Scriptures is rolling tobacco with the ripped-out pages of free copies outside the library. Plus, the student body who the rector supposedly speaks for recently made a strong showing at a pro-abortion feminist rally, chanting, “a romper / a romper / la burbuja de UC.” Break the Universidad Católica bubble.

La Catolica

I decided not to enroll in La Católica because the combination of an overly sanitized, keep-off-the-grass campus and an oligarchical administration unresponsive to its students and professors reminded me too much of Columbia, which I will return to in late August. The Universidad de Chile, however, is like a breath of fresh air. (Well, the literal air is more like smog, but to me the campus is a refreshing community of critical youth.)

There are other flagship public universities (La Universidad de Santiago and El Pedagógico) as well as a few private institutions (Universidad Diego Portales and Universidad Alberto Hurtado) that belong to Santiago’s intellectual elite. Apparently the rest of the universities, technical institutes and centers of professional formation, which together represent well over 80% of Chilean college students, are not prestigious enough to be pitched to study abroad students from U.S. colleges, so I guess it’s time to move onto to my next topic — the Chilean carrera.

Read more on travel, education and history at The Dandruff Report.

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