How to Plan Your Study Abroad Experience
Living as a Student in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Article and photos by Megan Jones
“Este te causa engordar, no?” (This will make you fat, right?”)
“O! Como en las peliculas!” (Oh, like in the movies!)
“Cuando lo comes?” (When do you eat it?)
“Es muy dulce!” (It’s really sweet)
“Que es este?” (What is this?)
The object in question is peanut butter. Given that the average American consumes 3 lbs of peanut butter yearly, we often forget that peanut butter is not typically part of the international palette. The above are just a few examples of the odd questions and conversations filled with cultural discovery that I experienced while studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
I participated in a study abroad program through the University of Georgia in order to perfect my Spanish language skills in a native environment while obtaining credit towards my Romance Languages major. Here is a video montage of previous semesters: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAfG7_nTZ5g&feature=related. As a student at UGA, many resources were already available to me; however, there are a few details that would have sped up the search process had I been aware of them beforehand.
Given that the general question regarding study abroad is not, “Why?” but rather “When? And with what money?” I have tailored these guidelines to students who are looking to get the most experience out of their money and time. I have also taken into account that the majority of us have to propose the idea of study abroad to our parents as an economical, educationally enriching experience. This may not be normal, but I even had to write a report for my parents, explaining why I should be allowed to study abroad! If you follow these steps, that daunting task will be entirely less daunting.
I will go through seven general study abroad topics, and then give words of advice specific to Argentina based on my personal experience.
The most basic distinction to know when searching for programs is the difference between “study abroad” and “exchange.” “Study Abroad” tends to be more group-oriented, and provides more resources available upon arrival. “Exchange” means a relationship between a foreign and domestic university must be made. Exchanges require a very independent person by nature, since the level of immersion is typically higher with less guidance after arrival.
General Guidelines for Planning Study Abroad
For me, the hardest factor in deciding to study abroad was finding a way to get 12 credit hours that actually pushed me towards graduation. Many programs tout “credit hours” available, but that does not necessarily mean those credit hours directly apply to your major, or keep you on track towards graduation. If you accumulate extraneous hours, it could also affect the Hope Scholarship (in Georgia), other scholarships/grants, and possibly postpone your graduation date.
The second concern is always time. In my opinion, most summer programs are severely overpriced compared to full semester programs. If you find a program that offers credits where you need them (as described above), the issue of taking off for a whole semester is less of a problem. Finally, if your main goal is to study a language, more than a summer is necessary to achieve fluency.
www.Studentuniverse.com is a good student-oriented website to start searching for cheap flights.
Also, Airtran offers a standby program for 18-22 year olds where any 1-way flight within the continental U.S. for as low as $69. This program could be considered if you need to get to a central hub like Atlanta or New York before departing on an international flight. Keep in mind that these flights are standby, so if you elect this option be sure to leave yourself ample time for an international connection. Details can be found at www.airtranu.com/airtran_u.aspx.
Another option is to ask everyone you know about leftover Skymiles. Many business people (aka, your friend’s parents) end up with a ton of miles with no intention of using them anytime soon. The miles often expire quickly and require complicated maintenance fees--which means people often are more than happy to donate them to a worthy cause just to get them out of their hair. You could even use craigslist to advertise that you are looking for such a service.
Most American universities offer study abroad services. However, they will generally simply refer you to other resources (websites, phone numbers, etc.). So, even if resources are available at your university, be content with the fact that there is still much work to be done.
The first step to finding housing should be to research the neighborhoods of the city you are visiting. Most of us wanted to end up in between the “rich neighborhood” and the “poor neighborhood.” Finding the middle ground generally ensures that you find a fair price range and a safe environment.
If you are willing to do ample research on staying with a host family, www.couchsurfing.org is a free option for temporary housing. This site offers an option to choose a host family or apartment in advance of your. You can go to your destination and stay with a “couchsurfer,” while checking into more permanent housing options once you arrive. Couchsurfing.org can also be used as a resource where you may email questions to natives.
Do not forget about the power of social networking. You may use your Facebook page or blog as an advertisement that you are looking for housing abroad, and you will be shocked by the amount of responses may received. Two social networking sites that are more popular outside of the United States are www.badoo.com and www.hapiplanet.com. Use these resources with due carefulness to meet locals before you even arrive.
- How in the world do I pack for this?
- Breathe deeply
- Get started early
- During a typical day, take note of what products you typically use, what foods you cannot live without, specific hygiene habits. Then actually write them down. It is very easy to get caught up thinking about the exciting experience ahead of you, and then to forget about your daily needs—needs that may be harder to meet in a new environment. Think of specific products that might be harder to come by at your destination. Make decisions between specific products you need to bring from home, and products that you can wait and buy upon arrival. And, do not be overly brave and think that you can leave all of your American habits behind and immediately immerse yourself in a new culture. There will definitely be some aspects of life at home that you will miss. Plan on it.
- Do not forget any medical needs (contacts, birth control, etc.). Also, most doctors are willing to write pre-emptive prescriptions for drugs such as antibiotics and TamiFlu. Although general medicines will most likely be available in your destination country, obtaining them ahead of time will save you the trouble of finding a pharmacy when you are sick and cranky in a foreign country. (One special word of advice to the ladies: tampons are often harder to come by in Latin America, and can often be expensive for lower quality. Stock up.)
- Some finishing touches
Be sure to register your destination(s) at travel.state.gov. As an American citizen, this ensures you will be cared for should any type of epidemic or government crisis occur during your time.
Also be sure to check into necessary immunizations early at travel.state.gov. Often more than one shot/dose is necessary for one immunization, which require weeks between shots. If there are “recommended” immunizations that are not required before you literally step foot in the country, consider the possibility of receiving the immunization at a cheaper rate in your destination country. I could have saved around $150 if I had thought of this possibility for the Yellow Fever shot that is recommended to go to Iguazu Falls at the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay.
If at all possible, I would recommend you choose a country where the exchange rate is in your favor. I say this not just to save money, but also to be able to experience more during your stay. If you are preoccupied with spending too much money, it will be difficult to have experiences you would not normally have in your own environment.
|What the author read through through times a week for a PR agency.
I would highly recommend searching for some sort of internship or volunteer opportunity upon arrival at your destination country. I worked at a public relations agency (Colombo Pashkus) in Argentina. The social networking tool LinkedIn is a good way to contact specific people from businesses abroad. Remember, when in a foreign country, your most valuable asset is that you are now interesting because you yourself are foreign, and you speak fluent English. Use these attributes to your advantage.
Towards the end of my trip, I decided I wanted to come back over the summer to teach English. So, I prepared a rudimentary Spanish resume with the help of some friends, and started sending out copies. It is best to find a way to return to a country while still actually still in that country.
Tips for Living as a Student in Buenos Aires
|The bus stop.
Although the exchange rate is very much in our favor (US$1 is approximately 4 pesos), and taxis are tempting at such a low rate, the public transportation is still the best option if you are on a budget.
In general, the pace of public transport is extremely fast. In Buenos Aires, natives are not typically patient with foreigners fumbling for change or taking too long to get on or off the bus, or in and out of line at the subway station.
The first thing you buy after landing should be a “Guia-T,” which is a small booklet of complete maps of the entire capital city including bus routes. They should be sold at any “kiosco,” or small supermarket. This site provides an excellent basic video on the “Guia-T”: www.tripfilms.com/Travel_Video-v81-Buenos_Aires-A_Guide_to_Guia_T-Video.html. (This website is a fantastic resource for videos that is more directly focused on travel than simply searching for videos on YouTube.) Once you have figured out what bus number you need and where to wait for it, you need actual coins in order to use the bus (rather than individual bills). At any bank, you can exchange up to 10 pesos for “moneda,” or change. Wait in line at the bus stop, and upon boarding tell the driver your destination, and he will then tell you an amount (for example, 1.10, 1.20, or 1.25), and you put coins in a teller, just as you would in a vending machine.
If you are planning on any travel outside of the city of Buenos Aires, keep in mind that Aerolineas Argentinas is known for its frequent strikes. So, if flying, I would recommend using LAN airlines instead.
The Dialect and Culture
If you are Argentina-bound, and have taken traditional Spanish classes in the US, be prepared to throw much of your knowledge out the window the first few days. Typical Spanish classes in the U.S. teach Castilian Spanish, with little reference to the unique dialects of Latin America. Your first few days you will need to do 3 translations mentally: “Argentinian”->”Spanish”->”English.” The most audible difference is that Argentinians pronounce “ll” as “sh,” rather than keeping it silent. Also, brush up on the “vosotros” verb form because it is used extensively there, but usually skimmed over in typical Spanish classes in the U.S.
- Colectivo = autobus = bus
- “Cai(sh)e” = calle = street
- Portenios = Argentinos (de Buenos Aires) = Argentinians (from Buenos Aires)
- Sos = eres = you are (this word is extremely important, since it is likely one of the first questions you will be asked will be, “Where are you from?”/ “De Donde sos?”)
Natives will be extremely impressed with you if you know about the tradition of “mate,” an herbal tea that is drunk out of a gourd. You will see it everywhere. Check out this website for the basics: www.matefactor.com/yerba-mate-tradition-and-history.html.
All Argentinians have MSN for chatting online. Ask them for their username and they will certainly give you it. Chatting or making plans in Spanish online is significantly easier than talking on the phone. My Spanish improved greatly by doing this. Google “Windows Live Messenger” to set up an account for yourself if you do not already have one.
Safety in Buenos Aires
Of course, follow all typical travel guidelines: do not walk alone, do not wear a conspicuous brand of purse, do not look at a map in the middle of the sidewalk, do not hang your purse on the back of your chair, etc. But, in my experience, the best safety precaution is to be with locals when you go out. Being a very blond, very white woman, I never once had a scary situation during my five months in Argentina following this policy. Latin American culture is generally more community-oriented than in the U.S., so your new friends will more than likely look out for you very well.
Another issue to consider is the location of ATM’s. In the U.S., ATM’s are located directly on the street. In Buenos Aires, they are located inside of a small glass building. I wandered around for at least 30 minutes the first time I looked for an ATM. This system is actually much more secure. You have to swipe any sort of magnetic strip on a scanner on the door handle, then go in, and then the door shuts and locks behind you, and you can withdraw in relative safety. Nonetheless, be aware that an ATM is an obvious hotspot for pick-pocketing. So, as always, be cautious.
The International Student ID Card (www.isecard.com/isecard/aboutb.html) is often advertised to study abroad students is a good product, but does not have much use in Latin America. However, if you have the extra cash, an extra form of identification can never hurt. In addition, while in Buenos Aires, I was always sure to have the local university’s (Universidad de Palermo) student identification with me. While a student id card is not as respected as the national ID card, it is still generally received better than a copy of an American passport.
Since returning to the U.S., I have realized how valuable international experience is to a job search in any field. Foreign experience sets your resume apart. Conversely, I have realized how valuable a native English speaker is abroad. Everyone wants to learn English. I mixed Buenos Aires’ culture with my own, and it has only yielded positive benefits to my worldly understanding, my job search, and my social network.
While studying abroad can seem filled with logistics, and an expensive way to study, I believe it is truly the most rewarding experience one can take advantage of being a student.
The most important tips I can offer are:
1. Talk to everybody. They are more interesting and interested in you than you think they are.
2. Plan ahead, but also accept that the beauty of studying abroad is the surprises.