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Higher Ed in Chile Pt. 2: Majors as Communities

In the United States, liberal arts college students apply to an entire school, sample various academic departments for a year or two before picking a specific major and even then continuing to study a minor. In contrast, higher education in Chile (and most of the world) is a system of earlier specialization in which even elite university students apply to a carrera — nursing, law, publicity, chemistry, etc. — within a university, study only that subject for the next three to five years and, if all goes according to plan, emerge with a professional title.

In short, whereas I spent my first two years of college dipping my toes in the water, my Chilean friends dived right in.

Dive Right In

My host brother, for example, got a scholarship to study sociology — and only sociology — at Universidad Andrés Bello after he graduated high school in 2012. His four-year schedule is largely fixed (i.e. social theory as a freshman, urban sociology as sophomore, quantitative research methods as a junior) and culminates in an individualized final year (e.g. senior thesis, elective seminars, professional practicum).

Despite the relative rigidity of the carrera, the actual teaching itself is not set in stone. Thanks to Chilean education’s tradition of libertad de cátedra, which roughly translates to freedom to teach, each new crop of sociology students will encounter a different curriculum and method in their introductory social theory class with each new professor.

Speaking of social theory, the carrera seems to foster what classical sociologists call community rather than society because the members are stuck together rather than free to come and go as they please. My host brother’s carrera community is by no means as closed as a twelfth-century village with no way out save a dark forest, but it’s also far from the stay-as-long-as-you-personally-benefit political society of Washington D.C. The fact that to switch carreras he would have to start from scratch and beg his mother to pay tuition is reason enough to stick it out. If he was in my place, perhaps he would have switched from the sociology major to history as I did my sophomore year.

Also unlike most U.S. majors, my host brother’s 30-person cohort has become close, like a Real World-style reality TV show starring his best friend, several ex-girlfriends and current flame kind of close. That’s the power of studying together, striking together and sleeping together for four years straight.

Real World Santiago

That level of everyday solidarity means that each cohort has more bargaining power when it comes to pushing back test dates, questioning the professor’s teaching style and generally balancing out that libertad de cátedra in the classroom. Plus, since the carreras are so close-knit, there seems to be no desire for sororities or other social clubs. The upperclassmen of each academic department are in charge of hazing, parties and other “responsibilities” regarding first-year students.

In my experience at the Universidad de Chile, my history compañeros have also gotten quite cozy sitting through classes together all day, every day for five years. Instead of exploding from the constant friction, the close contact has sparked intimate friendships. Each walk to class is a jam session. Each sunset is a soccer match. Each Friday night is a guarantee to get wasted together and spill one’s guts, both figuratively and literally. (More on this in my next post on party politics.)

Likewise, my compañeras studying elementary pedagogy not only attend all the same guest lectures but also go out dancing together on weekends and road-trip together during vacation. For that reason, each gathering around a picnic table after our Monday morning workshop feels like a family reunion. I’m breaking bread with fifteen people who care about each other.

Academic Family

The sad part is I’m not one of those fifteen people. It’s not that I don’t care about them or that they don’t care about me. My courses at the Universidad de Chile, which include history lectures, pedagogy seminars and psychology electives (not to mention independent research), make it logistically impossible to hang out with any group — be it my history compañeros or pedagogy compañeras — in the way they hang out with each other, which seems to be 24/7.

(You could say my current social life is that of a lone penguin waddling between huddles searching for warmth, and the already-warm penguins always sense the arrival of the one who has been out in the cold. You could say that, but that’d be cheesy, right?)

It can also be liberating to roam free, untethered to any single community, but I already got my fill of being just another anonymous face in the Anonymous Face Society that is modern-day New York City. It was at Columbia University, where my friends and I rarely shared a class schedule, that I developed the bad habit of eating in the company of only my Macbook.

Macbook

From what I can tell from my campus here in Santiago, there is less scheduling, less stress and less loneliness. Students in the same year of the same carrera shuffle from class to lunch and back to class again as a family.

Thankfully I get to tag along, but with a different family each day of the week. It feels like either the cruel, collective adoption of an academic orphan or an ideal sampler of Chilean carreras. It depends on the day.

Either way, I’m grateful to now know a university structure besides my U.S. major and to be getting to know all these penguins.

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

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