Friday, November 18th, marked the last day of classes at la Universidad Católica. While this was one of the first sure signs that time in Santiago is winding down I can’t relax too much yet; I still have three classes to worry about and a slew of assignments to complete over the next two weeks. Conveniently, I’m also going to be spending the next four days without wifi, which only complicates the end-of-term academic onslaught. However, with the warm weather and increase in people selling ice cream on the metro, my mind is definitely looking forward to finishing up the academic side of study abroad. Before I do so, I just wanted to do a more comprehensive overview of academics in Chile. When I was investigating programs it was hard to find a lot of definitive information that really explained how difficult (or easy) classes were in Chile or how they were structured. While most of this information will really be comprised of my own opinions, I hope it is helpful to anyone curious about academics in Chile!
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At the start of each school year I often find myself telling the incoming freshmen “Ah, what I wouldn’t give to be a freshman again.” The truth is, I don’t mean it. I am perfectly happy to have my friends, know where all my classes are, and not be at the bottom of the totem pole. But I have come to appreciate as much flak as freshmen get for being clueless to the ways of the world (or at least within the microcosm of a college campus) there is also something to be said for the fleeting virginal pleasure of being immersed into so many new experiences all at once. Arriving at Oxford, I have certainly felt like a freshman again. And while I have been quickly reminded why I am so glad to no longer be a freshman, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also nice to do it all again. I have even found myself eating in the dining hall again (though when your dining hall is straight out of Harry Potter it has slightly more appeal than the buffet style cafeterias that defined freshman year).
Here all new students are called “Freshers” and they are grouped together based on the unifying characteristic that they are new to Oxford. Regardless of age, nationality, or area of study, we are all Fresher’s. The approach is quite a welcoming one, and while I have often felt inundated with orientations, safety briefings, and inductions, they are all admittedly quite useful. Knowing how everything worked at my home institution may have been old hat, but crucial information like library hours and best places for a late night snack have all had to be relearned. For this reason, it is exceedingly helpful to be treated like a freshman.
It also gives you a unique opportunity to reinvent yourself. Every year when New Year’s Day rolls around, people embrace the opportunity to make positive changes in their lives. Gym memberships soar, healthy eating abounds, and bad habits are kicked to the curb… for about a month. Occasionally New Year’s resolutions lead to lasting changes for a better lifestyle, but ultimately the same habits creep back in. The numbers may have changed on the calendar, but not much else has. If you are in the same environment with the same routine and same temptations, trying to make significant changes, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, will be supremely difficult to maintain. However, when you’re entire surroundings are new, no one knows you, and you haven’t even adjusted your sleep pattern (much less a daily routine) you have a golden opportunity to build your new lifestyle however you like. You have enough independence to sleep all day every day, or not sleep at all. It’s like freshman year all over, but hopefully this time with some added wisdom. We will have to see how long it lasts, but I have welcomed this opportunity with open arms. I am trying to force myself to eat healthy by only buying (somewhat) healthy groceries. I have joined the crew team, which practices at the ungodly hour of 6 in the morning (serving the dual function of getting me out of bed to start my day and getting some exercise). And in class I have taken the initiative of being responsible about my work. I realize that I chose to come here, I am here to learn, to take advantage of the academic prowess of this esteemed institution. If I wanted to skate by and follow along, I should’ve stayed home. Surrounded by some of the most historic and beautiful architecture in England, walking in the footsteps of some of our world’s greatest minds, I would like to be the best version of myself that I can be. I aim to leave Oxford having made my time here worthwhile, taken advantage of every opportunity available. After all the planning, hoping, working, packing, travelling, stressing, wondering, and everything else, I am finally here. I didn’t just come to visit, to pass through. I came to grow, and I intend to do so.
Apologies for the belated update, for classes are officially underway and the school year has officially begun!
Aaand I’m back. After a hectic, time-consuming shopping period, I finally got the time to write this entry! Basically the past few weeks were spent traveling to 10 different classes and listening to their respective professors give introductions, and then judging by those whether or not I wanted to pursue the class. I also considered factors such as class size and how well I liked the professors. IFSA warned us how the Argentine university registration processes was notoriously disorganized, and that was certainly the case.
Besides castellano, my classes include a seminar about political and social processes in Latin America, a class about contemporary solidarity movements in Argentina, and a human rights class. I’m also taking a film and literature class with a contemporary focus on the 21st century. That class, as well as castellano, is taught at the IFSA headquarters in center of town on Avenida Corrientes. The seminar is taught at La Universidad del Salvador, off Avenida Córdoba a little farther out in Recoleta but nearby a Subte estación. The rest of my classes are at La Universidad Católica Argentina in The San Telmo/Puerto Madero area. Out of all three places, UCA is by far the most modern, though it is an absolute pain to access- if you’re traveling from the center of town, you have to give yourself at least half an hour to cross the Plaza de Mayo (especially when there’s a protest) and then three wide avenidas. I should note that, yes, both universities are very much Catholic, with crosses and pictures of Pope Francis everywhere. According to Lara, the administrations of both are fairly conservatives, although the ideology doesn’t always extend to the professors. Plus the classes I’m taking deal with topics of social injustice, so I assume my sexuality shouldn’t be an issue, maybe, hopefully? Read More »
I’m most of the way through my first week of classes now, I’ve attended lectures for 3 out of 4. It’s very different here, there is a lot less class time with mainly weekly reading and a single larger paper due at the end of term. It’s actually a lot lighter work load than I’m accustomed to in the US. It’s also a lot more self-motivated study, your lecturer will guide you to some extent, but you’re expected to direct your own studies and be prepared for the seminar portion of the class where you interact with smaller groups of students to converse more in depth about topics.
It’s also a lot different for me because I’m a short-term student. Normally, they give you a review session at the end of Spring term because they do all their examinations at the end of spring term to the beginning of summer term. As a short-term student, I’m only here for a semester, so instead of taking the exam for the classes, I just have longer or multiple essays for the class. It’s a little scary knowing that my grade is only based off of one or two assignments, but at the same time, that lower number allows me to focus more on preparing really well constructed papers.
Another major difference is textbooks. In the US, I always struggled to find the funds to pay for my textbooks at the beginning of term, and because so many assignments and information on tests came from those textbooks, you have to buy them. Well, over here, I only have to buy one textbook, and it’s only a little of $50, rather than the $100-$200 I normally pay for my textbooks back home.
Last week was a welcome week hosted by the school. One of the free events they offered for the new international students was a trip to Leeds Castle – and it was a real castle, not just a title. It’s really amazing that the school is as active in involving international students as IFSA-Butler is.
I for one had a ton of fun on my first day of class. It was like a cultural safari: I got to drive around and see all the sights I had heard about, but I was never actually at any risk of being harmed by the various beasts.
My first (and only) class of the day was scheduled for 8:00, so I got to the university around 7:35, supposedly to make sure I found the room on time but mostly to lord the star-spangled banner of American punctuality over the infamous “Tico time.” Come to find out it starts at 10:00, not 8:00. Which was fine, because I needed to make some changes to my schedule anyway. When I got to the office I found out that the guy in change of exchange student scheduling was late: the first sighting of the day, a real live Tico time. So I waited around, another famed characteristic of negotiating bureaucracies here. About an hour later our friend in the scheduling office arrived, but not long thereafter I got a call from some classmates who, while wandering in search of the classroom, found out it actually had started at 8:00. So those of us left in the scheduling office scurried up, down, in, out, back, and forth until we finally found the classroom. It was a four hour class, so I wasn’t too worried about missing the first hour and a half. Besides, they couldn’t meet the quorum without us, since it was an IFSA-only class and only two IFSA students had managed to find it so far.
Best of all, after our embarrassed/bemused introductions (depending on the person), we found out that we were in the presence of the most exotic creature of Costa Rican university life: the initially absent professor. My host mom had specifically warned me about this that morning at breakfast, but even then I didn’t believe I’d have the luck to see it myself. Sure enough, for reasons never explained to us, Profesor Carlos Naranjo Gutierrez had better things to do than attend the first lesson of his own class, and we were treated instead to a dramatic reading of the syllabus by the well-spoken substitute.
The power of context is amazing. In the States, any of these things—extreme tardiness by professionals, long waits, absent professors—would annoy, if not infuriate, me. But for the purposes of my visit here in Costa Rica, I enjoyed encountering all of them, especially since I had been warned. In one short and sweet jeep jaunt past all the best watering holes, I checked everything off my list in time for lunch and a lazy afternoon.
Today I’ll be talking about:
I. My classes this semester
II. A side note on making Argentine friends
III. General structure and organization of Argentine classes
V. Previous posts
VI. Coming soon
I. My classes this semester
First, let me tell you PLEASE DON’T STRESS ABOUT TAKING COLLEGE CLASSES IN SPANISH. You’ll be fine. Most of my classes were easier than my U.S. classes to be honest.
That said, classes here were definitely a source of stress at various points during the program. I had a professor I could not stand, I had miscommunications and misunderstandings, I was confused about exam dates or even whether I had exams… But it all worked out, and I escaped with a solid GPA. And as long as you go to class, communicate with your professors and the IFSA staff, and keep your chin up, you will too.
- When you try out classes, pay special attention to the professor. If your prof is uncooperative with foreign students, it’ll make your experience much less pleasant. Is your professor easy to understand? Are they boring as mud? Do you feel comfortable asking them questions? Etc.
- Unless your home university requires specific types of classes, don’t limit yourself to courses that fall under your major at home. This is a chance to try out a new subject and experiment—especially because the courses that do pertain to your major might not be what you’re looking for or expecting.
IFSA students can take classes at two universities in Mendoza:
-Congreso is private. Smaller classes.
-Cuyo is public. Bigger classes, more expansive campus.
I took painting at Cuyo and Sustainable Development (philosophy of environmentalism) at Congreso, plus the Spanish class and Regional Development (mostly economic history) with IFSA.
Painting was easily my most demanding class…which was really a shame because it was the one class I knew I wouldn’t get credit for at Soka. Not only was there a lot of work (5 large paintings in class plus 12 individual paintings of any size outside of class) but the professor was a bit difficult to understand. It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t understand his words or his accent, but that he would say one thing and change his mind later. Oh and did I say professor? I meant professors, plural, because there were 3, and they would each give a different opinion. Oy.
At the end of it all, I got a 10/10 (probably mostly because I’m foreign. Doh) so all’s well that ends well. And I got some cool paintings out of it.
Sustainable development was neat because all of the class time was used for discussion, so I had the chance to hear about what people in my age bracket think about environmental issues in Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and Brazil. …Frustrating because, surprise, surprise, the poor organization of both countries’ governments makes it difficult for them to make change in the way that the U.S. has. (Although most environmental movements out there are modeled after the U.S.’s movements.)
What I didn’t like about it was that there was only one grade: an oral exam. No way to gauge beforehand how the professor was going to grade, no way to make it up if you messed up. I did okay, but not as well as I wanted. Moreover, I was disappointed by how abstract the material was. There was no way to apply any of it. What little concrete information there was I already knew from previous classes in the U.S. So, I’m not sure how much I really got out of it other than a few interesting conversations.
I was bored silly by Regional Development, to be honest, but I think that was probably the class I learned the most in. I probably would have been better off taking some kind of Argentine history class though. The real problem here was that, although there was a “shopping” period to test out the main section of this class, the “concentrations” within the course didn’t start til later in the semester and so there was no way to preview them. Let’s just say that if I’d had the chance to preview my concentration, I would not have sat through a semester with that particular professor.
I really wanted more grammar, writing, and vocabulary from the Spanish class, but there was lots of verbal and listening practice. We also read a whole bunch, which also provided a cultural context.
Basically, I’ll tell you that if your goal is to become fluent by the end of your semester abroad…you’ve got to do a LOT of work beyond your classes. The best thing you can do is to avoid the other Yankees in the program and seek out Argentine friends.
II. A side note on making Argentine friends
And now I bet you’re thinking, “Well, duh, Yona. That was my intention.” Ojo, buddy, because it’s a whole lot easier said than done. First of all, you’re going to be naturally inclined to befriend IFSA kida because a) you’ll see them all the time. Program events, classes. You might even live near them. b) You share a cultural context with them, so you naturally have more in common and more things to talk about. c) Spanish is harder and potentially scarier, and English-speaking friends are a safe zone. If you’re not taking a language pledge of some kind, you might find yourself speaking English without even meaning to just because it’s so much easier and because, gosh darn it, you KNOW full well that these guys speak English better than Spanish.
So, be aware that there’s a lot you’re working against in that department and there are a lot of other things to distract you on study abroad, especially if you choose to travel a lot. It’s not all about language and making Argentine friends.
That said, it can be done. Here are a few tips to help you out in this department:
- Be tenacious! It’s not going to be easy, so you’ve got to really want it!
- Attend as many cultural events as possible. Get involved in the community. These are the kinds of events where you’ll be likely to meet people you have things in common with and an excuse to talk about them. (Plus be able to actually hear each other, unlike in clubs.) One of my good friends was a music junkie, and she made a couple of good friends at folklore or dance events.
- Try to talk to one new person every day or every week, especially towards the beginning of the program. The more you talk to people and put yourself out there, the easier it will be. Just go for it.
- Smile! Even if you’re nervous or uncertain of your Spanish ability, as long as you’re friendly and sincere…who wouldn’t want to be friends with you and learn more about you?
- Join a study group for class!
Now for my confession: aside from my host sister, I didn’t become very close with any Argentines. Sure, I talked to them. I was friendly, I went to cultural events… But I didn’t click with anyone. I didn’t have time to make connections because I had so much else going on! Part of the problem was also that it was very easy to get attention from men… but they didn’t really want to be FRIENDS, if you catch my drift. The women tend to be more standoffish.
However, if given the chance to trade my 4 chicas yanquis for some Mendocine amigos… there’s no way I’d do it. I think everything worked out the way it needed to this time around.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.
III. General structure and organization of Argentine classes
See what I did there? It’s funny because there’s not much of ANYTHING in Argentina that was structured or organized!
Some of my classes were cancelled so many times that I almost forgot I had them. Either the professor didn’t show up or there was a paro (strike) or there was a Monday feriado (holiday.)
And, of course, there’s almost never a syllabus. The professor might talk about assignments and never give them. Or vice versa—announce an assignment with very little notice. Essays are much less common than in the U.S. Most of the learning is about memorization of thought, not so much critical thinking.
Sorry Argentina, but I’m definitely ready to go back to the college education I’ve become accustomed to, where syllabi are organized and followed to the letter, where final exam dates are clearly announced ahead of time, where grades are posted and calculated online, where the professor always shows up on time, where I have to use my entire brain….It’s been an interesting experience, but I think I’ve had enough of that for now!
Paro – strike. Might be the professors themselves or might be the buses and public transport. Both can result in a class being cancelled.
Trabajo practico – Assignments, more or less. Homework. May or may not be an essay.
Promocional – Classes in which students who attend all class sessions and complete all trabajo practico don’t need to take the exam.
Parcial – midterm
V. Previous posts
11. Road Trip!
12. My Mate for Life
14. Pros and Cons
VI. Coming soon
Rafting in San Rafael
Chile Part II
The return to BA
Mar del Plata
Goals – accomplishments and compromises
Reverse culture shock