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La Universidad de Buenos Aires

My studies here are split between two worlds. I’m taking one course at the private Catholic university (UCA), and two at the public Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA). The latter is considered top notch. It offers a free education, but it is considered the toughest, most rigorous university in Buenos Aires. For a college student from North America, this concept might seem incongruous with the university’s aesthetic. It is very gritty-urban, has the shittiest broken down classrooms ever, pigeons in the filthy hallways covered in cigarette butts and trash, political graffiti and posters plastered on every wall, no toilet paper or soap in the bathrooms…

One night in UBA, four hours into my class, the power went out. So did we go home? No. We had the next two hours of class (10-11pm) in the pitch dark. I was bundled up in my winter coat and scarf, because UBA is basically a glorified cement warehouse, and in the winter the classrooms are freezing. I could hear the assistant prof’s voice filtering from somewhere nearby, and from the hallways, the sound of students celebrating the power outage, going wild — yelling, pushing desks across the floor, feet running pounding. Finally I was released from a pointless two hours in which I didn’t take any notes and didn’t understand a word the professor said.  I had to try to find my way out of the building by memory and by groping along the walls and trying not to crash into anyone/thing. I started to see a light in the distance, so I walked toward that, thinking it was an exit. When I got closer, I realized it was a bonfire. The students had lit a bonfire. In the school. And people were running in all different directions, I felt like I was in the wake of some terrible natural disaster. Often in UBA, I like to pretend we are the only survivors of the apocalypse, like we’re in a Fahrenheit 451 Brave New World and we’re communing in secret in the night to discuss literature and philosophy.

I can’t help but feel I’m learning “more” in la UBA than I do at Penn. I’m learning differently, I’ll say that at least. Obviously I’m overwhelmed by the fact that the subject matter is somewhat of a novelty — that is, for an undergrad from North America, someone who has never had the opportunity to study literary theory, this material is especially intriguing. There is also the fact that I’m being inundated with a volume of readings each week that is triple the amount I’ve experienced at Penn.

Beyond the sensation of feeling that I’m learning so much, I have to say I feel very at home where I’m learning it. Yes, there are difficulties, I have struggled with the language barrier and with figuring out what I’m supposed to be reading each week and how to find copies. And before I made friends in my classes, I felt lost. And yet, I feel like I fit in at la Universidad de Buenos Aires. In my Teoría Literaria class en la UBA, I sit in a room of more than a hundred students until 11 o’clock at night, and I watch them participate not to earn “participation points” for a good grade, but because they wonder, question, and want to share their opinions. There are not always enough desks to go around, so students sit on the floor or stand clustered in the doorway. The professor is so engaged he is practically shouting, everything is “fascinante, eh?” and “sumamente interesante!”, hands waving, wiping the beads of sweat from his brow. In these classrooms, there is such a genuine enthusiasm, an energy that is almost palpable. The four hours I spend every Wednesday night in la UBA are some of the happiest hours of my week. I don’t know exactly what it is I’ve found, only that I never felt it in any public school classroom in Carson City, Nevada, nor amongst the ivied brick buildings and marble staircases of Penn, but here in this facultad de UBA, sucia, caótica, full of cigarette butts and pigeons, with no toilet paper in the bathrooms.

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