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Immersion in Chile

For Successful Study Abroad Prepare Carefully, Then Let Go and Learn

I stepped onto the tarmac at the airport in Valdivia, Chile ready for a semester of nonstop fun, friends, and cultural exchanges.

Two weeks after arriving I wallowed in homesickness. I was lonely. The language barrier flustered me. I expected spring weather but bought a parka my second day. I wanted immediate fluency, fabulous friends, and wild stories to e-mail my envious friends. After my great study abroad expectations how could I change my depression into the wonderful experience I craved?

Studying in a foreign country involves intense preparation. But then you have to let go and allow the experience to become part of your life. Here’s how I learned to do both.

Choose a Program Carefully

  • Research the country beforehand. Latin American countries are not identical. Some students in a program in Valdivia, Chile expected a third-world country with large native Indian populations, not a country with a stable economy and sturdy middle class.
  • Talk to students from your school who studied abroad. What did they like and dislike about their program and host country?
  • Ask your adviser what classes will fulfill major requirements.

Let Go and Learn

  • Having done your research, lose your preconceived notions about studying abroad. Reality is always different from your friends’ experiences or guidebook descriptions.
  • Realize that your main goal is to experience the culture and learn the language—this won’t happen if you’re shy. Get out there and chat with the taxi drivers, clerks, professors, anyone. Using the wrong verb tense is not a criminal offense. If native speakers aren’t interested in deciphering your poor grammar, find another friendly face and make your conversational move.
  • Let go of your American habits and blend with the locals. Become a fan of local TV programs. I watched Machos, Chile’s hit soap opera, religiously; if conversation faltered I could always bring up the scandalous love affair from the previous episode.
  • Avoid hanging out with other American students. They’re a nice safety net when you arrive and are confused, but don’t rely exclusively on them for friendship. Get involved with university activities so you can meet local students. Join a gym, take dance classes on campus, participate in sports—the possibilities for community involvement are endless.

Expect to Be Homesick

  • Don’t feel guilty if you miss home—everyone misses family and friends at some point. Allow yourself one day of feeling depressed, and then take charge of your experience. Go dancing with a group of students and make new friends over dinner or drinks. Some programs offer volunteer opportunities.
  • Communication with the U.S. can be expensive. E-mail is the best way to maintain contact or start a blog so everyone back home can read about your adventures.
  • Living with a host family is difficult. Obey house rules, but if your family can’t or won’t accommodate your needs, consider switching families. If you don’t like your family situation, talk to your program coordinator—he or she will help you find a new family. A bad host family can make your semester abroad miserable.
  • On the other hand, a good host family can enhance studying abroad. Ask your family about their hobbies, their jobs, and their children—interest in their lives helps build lasting relationships. Respect cultural differences and always talk to your host family before problems become serious.

Travel

  • Don’t ignore the opportunity to travel within your host country or to neighboring countries.
  • Travel is affordable. Many countries have cheap public transportation. Look for inexpensive airfare between neighboring countries and student prices. Stay in hostels and always ask for discounts. Go with local friends to visit their families.
  • Studying abroad is not about your GPA; missing a class should not be a crisis. Don’t ignore school, but don’t elevate classes over other cultural opportunities. Remember, not all universities transfer grades, only credits.

By the end of my four months in Valdivia I didn’t sound quite so gringa when I spoke Spanish. I made close friends and traveled from my home base in Southern Chile to Santiago, Viña del Mar and the island of Chiloé. I saw the southern Andes and the endless sands of the Atacama desert. I had experienced life as a Chilean.

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