Caitlin is an Ambassador who studied abroad in Chile
Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you decide on this program?
Ever since hearing my mom's tales of studying abroad back when she was a Bennie, I've known I wanted to do it myself! Once I became a Bennie, I knew I wanted to study abroad in order to step outside my comfort zone, gain some independence, and live in and experience another culture (rather than just read about it). Being a Spanish minor, I wanted to apply and increase my language skills in one of our three Spanish-speaking programs - Spain, Guatemala or Chile. Ultimately, I chose Chile over the other two options because it was the country I was least familiar with. In all of my prior Spanish classes, we focused on the culture of Spain and Central America, but rarely on South America, let alone Chile. I wanted to plunge into the unknown and get to know Chile firsthand. After doing more research, the Chile program appealed to me more and more because of the country's geographic diversity. It has everything you could possibly want to experience - the Atacama Desert, the Atlantic coast, the Andes mountains, and Patagonia's cold and varied climate. The fact that I could see and experience just about any natural wonder increased my interest. Additionally, living with a host family appealed to me as a means of maintaining my Spanish, immersing myself in the culture, and making meaningful social and global connections. Finally, as an education major, the opportunity to complete my service learning hours in a Chilean elementary school sealed the deal. I have not once regretted my decision since!
Briefly describe a specific cultural experience you had on your trip that made a lasting impression.
I have so many beautiful cultural memories of Chile, from bike riding in the desert to celebrating the week-long Fiestas Patrias; from singing in the university choir to riding the microbus around town; and from whitewater rafting to seeing 31 Minutos (Chile's version of Sesame Street) perform live. For the purposes of this question, however, the one thing I'd like to expand upon is watching the 2012 Olympic Games. They had started as soon as I arrived in Chile, so it was a great way to immediately bond with my host family and feel at home. I also got to see the Games from a point of view that wasn't so U.S.-centric. Chile had one big competitor this past year, Tomás González, the first Chilean to ever qualify for gymnastics in the Summer Games. It was heartwarming and exciting to see the whole country cheer him on - the news ran stories about him constantly, schoolchildren wore painted versions of his iconic moustache on their faces, and everyone tuned in to see him compete for a medal in the final Vault competition. He had secured the bronze right before the final competitor went, unfortunately putting him in fourth. However, the Chileans didn't lament and whine, nor did they ask what went wrong. They celebrated his accomplishments - and thusly, the country's accomplishments - and were still proud to have made it to the finals. The Chilean spectators at the Chile-Argentina fútbol game we attended had the same attitude. While instead I expected them to be angry about losing to their biggest rivals, they walked away celebrating the goals they did score and having had a good time at the match. This attitude shed a lot of light on the cultural differences between the U.S. and Chile in terms of sportsmanship and competition. It was something that had never crossed my mind as being different from country to country, and because of that, it will always stick with me
Describe your overall study abroad experience.
In a word: unforgettable. It's so hard to sum up the whole five months; a lot can happen in that much time. I grew a lot as a person and learned more about myself and how I fit in with the world around me. I must note that the semester wasn't without its frustrations and low points. Challenges with the language and homesickness were fairly consistent problems, but these hindrances were miniscule compared to how wonderful the semester was for me. Traveling independently, improving my Spanish skills, experiencing Latin American culture firsthand, and getting to know so many people were my greatest high points. The social aspect of studying abroad is what made my overall experience something that was so hard to leave behind. I made such great connections not only with my fellow Bennies and Johnnies, but with my host family and Chilean friends as well. Creating these social bonds enriched my experience and will ultimately keep Chile as a part of my life forever. As a whole, I look back on my time in Chile neither as a vacation nor as another semester of classes at school, but as an enriching real-world learning experience. I discovered more about my sense of self, independence, cultural and social studies, economics, language and communication, relationships, and the natural world than I can ever hope to in five months anywhere else.
Based on your experiences abroad, what are some of the benefits of spending a semester abroad? How has studying abroad contributed to your personal, academic, and professional development?
The benefits of spending a semester abroad are endless! First of all, for those studying abroad in a country that doesn't speak much English, there is no way of learning a foreign language more quickly and more naturally. Professionally, it's a great resume booster that sets you apart as a future employee and gives you unique experiences that put you ahead of the game. Service learning requirements in some abroad programs also help you develop academically and professionally. Finally, you get to spend 4-5 months in another country, not just as a visitor or a tourist, but as a student and habitant. You really get to make a home for yourself away from home, gaining the opportunity to explore and learn on your own time in your own way. Studying abroad is not meant to be comfortable by any means, though (yes - that ultimately is a benefit!). By being taken out of your familiar territory and finding yourself somewhere completely new, you are able to discover who you are and how you function as a person in new and trying settings. On a personal level, studying abroad deepened my understanding of myself and my mental and physical limits. As for academics, I was able to finish my Spanish minor through my classes at the university. I also gained about 40 hours of classroom experience as a student teacher and assistant with first and second graders and high school juniors. This helped my professional development as a future educator immensely, especially because I wanted to explore options in teaching Spanish or Spanish immersion. Any exposure to the classroom is beneficial, but this particular experience taught me the value of preparation, communication, and improvisation.
What advice can you offer for CSB/SJU students who are considering or planning to study abroad?
If you are on the fence about studying abroad, I strongly urge you to take the risk and do it! No one comes back from a semester abroad saying they were bored out of their minds or wishing they had stayed home. If my words aren't enough, seek out other ambassadors in the programs you are interested in and ask about their experiences. Don't leave yourself wondering about any doubts you may have. This is your semester, your chance to indulge, explore, and push yourself, so don't leave yourself up in the air. Those of you planning to study abroad: congratulations on making the best decision of your life! My advice? Do some research on your host country. Reach out to students and faculty who have traveled there in the past. Set up a blog to archive your memories, photos, and feelings (and to keep friends and family in the loop). Pack good footwear, because with all the walking and exploring you'll be doing, you do not want your feet to be in bad shape. Once you've arrived, be sure to step back for reality checks - "I'm really in [host country]" - because your time there is over before you know it. Breathe, soak it in, and enjoy.
Do you have any questions about studying abroad in Chile? Email Caitlin at firstname.lastname@example.org