Chilean Study Abroad Means Full Cultural Immersion

March 10 2017
Category: Academics

This week’s #SoaringToSuccess story travels to South America with Angela Cataldo '17, a foreign languages and human services double major. Angela’s concentration in Spanish gave her the opportunity to study abroad in Chile, where she not only improved her Spanish-speaking skills, but also learned some important life lessons along the way.

Let’s grab our passports and hear more from Angela…

When I graduated high school, I had a goal of studying abroad for a full semester in college. Being a Spanish major, I knew that this would be the best way to increase my fluency, so I went into my semester in Chile focused mainly on improving my Spanish skills. However, I never realized how much of an adventure this experience would be and how much I would grow and learn as a result of it. 

Image of the student in Chile

The preparation that I had prior to going to Chile created a strong base from which I was able to experience personal growth. Specifically, during my freshman year at Elmira College, I went on a Term III trip to Peru, where I learned the importance of full cultural and language immersion. The multiple Spanish classes I took at Elmira College in the following years also helped increase my vocabulary and grammar, and I was able to practice speaking with native speakers on campus.

Aside from having a good foundation in Spanish, I was also able to take a class on contemporary issues in Latin America, where I learned about the recent history of Chile. Once I got to Chile, I was glad that I had the opportunity to take this class because I understood the references people made in regards to Pinochet’s dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. This knowledge of history and strong background in Spanish allowed me to develop stronger relationships with my host family and Chilean peers.

The relationships I developed with my host family in particular made my experience abroad even more enriching and enjoyable. I was their thirteenth American student that they hosted, but from the very beginning, they treated me like I was another member of their family. My host mom would worry about me just like she worried about her other daughters, and I looked forward to coming home every day to her saying ¿Cómo estai hijita mía? (translation: How are you my little daughter?) with a warm hug and kiss on the cheek.

Student with host mom in Chile

Living with a host family also allowed me to see what Chilean life is like. This meant big family lunches on the weekends, a tea time called once every evening to talk about the day, host sisters working 10 hour days, and lots of warmth and affection shared between each member of the family. I also heard my host mom’s experience during Pinochet’s dictatorship, allowing me to see the social and psychological effects of a political environment that I have never experienced. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from living with a host family is that when comparing cultures, it is important to remember that neither way of doing things is “bad” or “good,” they are just different and that is okay. I took this lesson to heart, and now I am slow to judge other people for the way they see the world because it is just different from how I see the world.

Speaking of differences, college life in Chile was a bit different than life at Elmira College. At first, it was difficult to adjust to having no student-run clubs, commuting 40 minutes to class each day, and having university buildings spread throughout two cities. After a few weeks, however, I embraced these differences and learned to be more flexible. Although all my classes were with other international students, they were taught all in Spanish, and we were expected to speak and do assignments in Spanish. My classes included: Modern History of Chile, Art and Society in Pre-Hispanic Chile, Spanish Health Purposes, and Traditional Dances of Chile. I enjoyed each of these classes because they gave me a better understanding of Chilean history and culture, Chile’s health system, and the indigenous cultures of South America. They also challenged me because I had to write long papers for my Modern History class and give several presentations in my Spanish for Health Purposes class. In other words, taking classes while living abroad added depth to my cultural experience and was an exciting challenge.

Campus where student studied in Chile

My experience with Chilean Spanish was another challenge during my time abroad. Chileans talk quite rapidly and have a distinct accent from other Spanish-speakers, so trying to decipher what they were saying was quite overwhelming and left me physically tired at the end of the day for the first few weeks. Fortunately, I began to understand a little more and express myself better each day. I did not realize how much my Spanish had actually improved until I returned to the United States. Now, when I hear Spanish speakers from other countries, the speed at which they talk does not phase me, and speaking in class is so much easier. I also have a lot more confidence speaking Spanish now, as it was all I spoke for four and a half months, minus a few phone calls home and teaching my Chilean friends English slang. Needless to say, studying abroad in Chile helped me reach my goal of improving my Spanish fluency.

When I set out for Chile, I thought that I would come back with a journal full of memories and better Spanish-speaking abilities. While I did come back with these two things, I also came back a more confident, flexible, and accepting person who better understands how an extreme government can affect the personal lives of its citizens.