Washington University in St. Louis has a new study abroad program in Chile which I am a huge fan of—and not just because I work for them!
Chile is a prime destination for study abroad students at the university level. It gives students the chance to improve their Spanish while continuing to study in a robust education system. Each semester hundreds of students arrive, primarily in Santiago, but also to Valparaiso/ Viña del Mar, Concepción and assorted other cities. Each time I have returned to Chile it seems that the programs are larger. In fact, the program I studied with in 2000 in Valparaiso has 2 people per semester, they now have 40+.
While I encourage any student who wants to come to Chile to apply, I am continually disappointed as I meet people who have been to Chile on a college exchange without ever getting to see or know the real Chile. You see, students are placed in host families—an important part of the exchange experience. For multiple reasons, ranging from the amount of extra space families have to safety of the neighborhoods, students are generally places with upper-class or upper-middle-class families in just a few neighborhoods. They attend classes, generally at the Catholic University or the University of Chile. While the University of Chile affords students a wider cross-section of the population in its student body, the students who arrive a la Chile still had to pass entrance exams which, in most cases, means they come from a background that supplied them with a means to do well in the exam.
My point is, before I get more longwinded, that it is simple for students to come to Chile, especially Santiago and never see anything outside of the upper class or upper middle class neighborhoods. They are told not to visit middle-class and lower-middle-class neighborhoods as they are “dangerous”. They go dancing, they go to restaurants, they make friends in a small area. I many ways, the system is set up for this to happen.
But they are missing the reality of most Chileans. This reality is not ugly. It is rarely dangerous. It is colorful and different. It is a chance to interact with more people and understand how development doesn’t reach all in the same way. They miss seeing a more traditional Chile that hasn’t been globalized or Americanized in quite the same way.
The new Wash U program has students spending three weeks improving their Spanish (although all of the participants this year have solid language skills) and then five weeks working full time in community health organizations. The placements are in communities that they most likely would not know if they had just come on the academic program. The people they interact with daily do not have regular interactions with Americans and show a genuine interest in what they are doing. Moreover, they have the opportunity to see Chile in its pluralities; in its function and its dysfunction; and, a bit more, in its entirety. These students will go home with a deeper understanding of Chile than many who have been here a longer time. And, for me, that is the biggest plus of this project.