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A One-Year Exchange Student's Report

By Heidi Schmaltz

Atacama desert
Atacama desert. Photo by Robin Fernandes.

Last year I lived in Chile for half a year as an exchange student with the American Field Service (AFS). Compared to most visitors, I didn't travel much. I lived with a Chilean family and had the responsibilities of any Chilean teenager. I went to school every day, in uniform. I had good days and bad days and days that I didn't understand.

Chuquicamata, my host community, is a mining camp high in the Atacama desert. Tourists come to see the mine, but no one stays longer than a day. There is no discotheque, no shopping center, no anthropological museum or beach. Driveways must be watered daily to keep the dust down.

When I arrived in "Chuqui," I was scared. It was so different from the temperate, urban middle-class America I was accustomed to. There were stray dogs on the streets, and a constant cloud of brick-colored dust came from the mine. There was no downtown, few smoothly paved streets, and little to do for entertainment. The people worked extremely hard. Students were worried about escaping to college in Antofagasta, Santiago, or some wetter place down south. Rain was a rare phenomenon; earthquakes and windstorms were frequent.

I had studied Spanish 2 1/2 years and was always one of the best students in my class. But in my first week in Chile I was barely able to communicate and desperate for one person to whom I could explain my shock. I couldn't speak the thoughts in my head—and there were so many.

Most exchange students experience this. Culture shock reveals itself in everything from increased aggression toward the people to lack of appetite or weight gain and depression. Being an exchange student requires suspending all judgments. At the same time, it is part of the learning process to become aware of what one does assume. Being an exchange student is not easy.

As time passed, everything changed. I began to forget words in English and to dream in Spanish and crave Chilean food. I got used to not depending on costly things for fun. Fun in Chuquicamata was being with people. The stray dogs didn't seem so strange anymore. The American sitcoms that came in on cable really did seem strange.

I began to identify myself less and less as a gringa—I wasn't like the tourists that passed though the downtown, loaded with lots of special gear. I was more a member of "tercero B," my class at school, or at least a gringa who also knew a little something about being Chilean.

I took math, physics, chemistry, biology, two history classes, Spanish, art, and philosophy—for which I received a half a credit in global studies. Somehow my high school couldn't figure out a way to relate my experience to its curriculum.

But the sacrifices were nothing compared to the gain. I learned how to accept as well as to succeed in another culture. I now know the world is my community and have a much deeper understanding of both myself and others.

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