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Living, Studying, and Volunteering in Montevideo, Uruguay

Study Abroad Semester Turned Year-long Exploration

Lindsay with a group of Uruguayan friends
Lindsay with a group of Uruguayan friends.

As I sat in the living room of my host parents’ house, having spent the previous three hours in non-stop conversation with a Uruguayan friend to my right and an American friend to my left, feelings of gratification rushed over me. In this simple gathering, and others like it, I had accomplished what I most wanted out of my cultural immersion experience abroad: learning about the country through the eyes of people who live there.

I had persevered through the frustrations of improving in a foreign language, had pushed myself to integrate into the local community…and the effort was paying off: I was flourishing.

Among other topics touched as we sat at the table enjoying “tomando la leche” (the traditional late afternoon pick-me-up of chocolate milk and sweet pastries), Gastón, Courtney, and I talked about the pervasive secularism in Uruguay’s society. A native of the country’s capital and by far largest city, Montevideo, Gastón was intrigued to hear our perspective, and bounced off his own reflections. He sat interested and patient as I expressed, in more-or-less fluent Spanish, my observations of how the lack of a presence of religion and spirituality in the public sphere seems to affect the Uruguayan society.

Yes, I felt gratified that the year had brought about such growth and companionship. I arrived in Montevideo, Uruguay in July 2012, excited and nervous to begin my 6-month stay in this small country in the Southern Cone. Little did I know that I would end up staying an extra five months, living there until May 2013.

Know What You Want out of an Experience Abroad

Going on a semester of study abroad had been on my “to-do” list since I was in high school. During my first two years on UNC’s campus (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), I never quite felt like I found my niche, neither in academics, nor in extracurricular activities. As these feelings persisted, I became even more motivated to study abroad: to learn in a different way, to experience something other than being on a college campus.

My first step in deciding on a program was to seriously reflect on the objectives that I had for my semester abroad. The abundance and diversity of study abroad programs can be overwhelming; in my opinion, one is prepared to make the best decision when having a clear understanding of what one wants to get out of the experience. For example, first and foremost, I knew that I wanted to improve my fluency in Spanish. Second, I knew that I did not want to go with a group of students from my university, as I might be tempted to spend most of my time in the comfort of the familiar. In this way, I was able to narrow my options down to several smaller programs in Latin America.

Ask yourself what are your primary objectives for studying abroad. Do not throw this to the wind! Perhaps you are attracted by the idea of being in a country different from your own for a few months, with the idea of having fun and doing much traveling. However, based on my own objectives and experience, I speak to those who want to be more than a passing student and tourist. I write to those whose objective is to deeply experience, to immerse themselves, in the place in which they study or participate in an internship abroad.

Uruguay: Somewhat Off-the-Beaten-Path, and Refreshingly Unique

I found that Montevideo fit well with the objectives I had set for a study abroad experience. The capital and important port city is becoming a popular destination for exchange students. The city is similar to Buenos Aires in having the feel of a European city; Montevideans are descended from Spanish and Italian families and retain many cultural and societal similarities. In contrast to its Argentinean counterpart, Montevideo is of a reasonable size, with greater security and minimal number of tourists. The calm atmosphere is noticeable as one walks the streets and interacts with the people. Uruguayans tend to be amiable and prefer to collaborate while seeking solidarity. Their saying, “nadie es más que nadie” (no one is better or more important than anyone else) is strongly reflected throughout their society.

Montevideo is a great place to come to improve one’s Spanish; the locals will gladly help you out, and, what is more, will be interested in why you have come to their country.

View of the Montevideo’s promenade
View of the Montevideo’s promenade that stretches for miles, separating the water from the city.

The city has a reliable and extensive bus system that allows for quick transit in the center as well as its outskirts (each ride costs about 1 US dollar). Ask almost anyone on the street which bus to take to arrive at “such and such” street, and 8 out of 10 will be able to tell you several buses that will serve you. There is a great Montevideo government transportation website that is a lifesaver: simply enter your starting point and destination and it provides a list of the appropriate buses, as well as a route to arrive by foot, making use of mapping. Pick up a bus card, free and available in almost any street kiosk — with it, you can take more than one bus within an hour’s time, for the price of one ride.

Don’t let the palm trees and tropical vibe of search engine travel photos of Montevideo fool you...it gets cold in this southern city! Montevideo has four distinctive seasons, and the humidity makes the winter temperatures in the 30s and 40s degrees feel colder. Whether you study in the spring or fall semester, remember to pack a good coat.

View of the Montevideo’s promenade
Christmas-time feels like summer in Montevideo, which experiences weather with seasons inverted from much of Northern America.

Uruguayans tend to stick with the same foods with little relatively little variation: heavy on the dairy products, pasta dishes, and lots of meat. As the exportation of beef is one of the country’s major economic assets, their meat is a source of national pride. If you are a vegetarian, be prepared to pay more for food, as supplementary foods (whole grain breads, tofu and soy products, and nuts) are imported and pricey. With a few exceptions, the clothing sold is expensive and not of good quality. Pack personal hygiene products (especially shampoo, facial cleaner, and razors), which you will find to be particularly pricey in the country.

Cows in Uruguay
They say that there are 5 cows for every 1 Uruguayan! Here are two in the interior of the country.

Logistics and a Word on Traveling in Uruguay

Uruguay does not have an entrance fee for North American visitors, as does Argentina and Chile. Students can obtain a student visa, or simply go on a tourist visa and leave the country every 90 days, which is a great excuse to do some traveling.

Go to the major bus terminal where you can buy a reasonably-priced ticket to almost location in the country, as well as international destinations in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, etc.

Uruguay offers beautiful beaches along the eastern coast, including the world-renowned Punta del Este.

Academics

I studied in la Universidad Católica del Uruguay (la Católica), which has agreements with universities in over 30 countries, receiving some 70 international students each semester. The exchange program at la Católica offers classes especially designed for the exchange students in Uruguayan History, Literature, Culture, as well as a Spanish language course. Even though the classes are conducted in Spanish, it is notable that the professors take into account that Spanish is not the native tongue of the great majority of the students. These classes are restricted to international students, creating the sense of being closed-off from the university at large.

International Students in la Católica of Uruguay
International Students in la Católica, July to December 2012.

The other two major private universities in Montevideo, la Universidad de Montevideo (la UM) and la Universidad ORT (ORT), receive fewer international students and do not offer separate classes through their exchange programs (as does la Católica); take note that in la UM, the "Spanish language" course is not included in the semester’s tuition. Some schools have an agreement with the public university, la Universidad de la República Uruguay, which is free to all; however, being an international student there is more difficult as you are in a class with some 300 to 400 students.

To realize a really substantial improvement in your mastery of Spanish, enroll in classes with local students for the fullest possible immersion. The class that I enjoyed the most, and from which I progressed the most linguistically, was an intensive art history course in which I was the only foreigner alongside 15 Uruguayan classmates and a professor who spoke rapid-fire Spanish. This gave me an authentic taste of the Uruguayan university system and challenged my own perceptions of classroom norms. For instance, I am not accustomed to the emphasis that is placed on collaborative effort among students, fostering an atmosphere in which students share notes, help classmates in comprehension, and study together.

Being Proactive During your Time Abroad

In seeking a non-touristy experience, it is helpful to integrate oneself in local organizations and activities: get involved with things that locals do! While the universities in Montevideo have some sports teams, they simply do not have the choice of extracurriculars and clubs as one might be used to on his or her college campus; as a result, I looked elsewhere to get involved.

El Instituto Nacional de la Juventud (National Youth Institute) offers free cultural-artistic workshops—such as tango, salsa, and exploration of local music—for any youth within the ages of 15 to 29. I participated in the tango workshop, which met twice a week, and had a great time meeting locals of my age and learning about a genre of music and dance very particular to the region.

The city government funds similar on-going workshops in many other locations throughout Montevideo. If you are also looking to get involved in the community through service-oriented projects, this great resource will connect you with a myriad of organizations.

Don't Be Afraid to Change Your Plans

My how a semester abroad flies by! It was only towards the very end of the semester that I was beginning to truly feel integrated in my surroundings: with my host-family, with the foreign language, with friends and activities. I started considering the possibility of staying an additional semester, taking into account that many international students stay for a full year. After learning that I wouldn’t be able to remain in the university due to complications with receiving credits, I chose to take a gap semester from school.

The task was to construct what I wanted to do during the semester. Word-of-mouth networking helped me find out about organizations with which I could volunteer or participate in an internship. However, internships are still not integrated into the Uruguayan work culture, as they are in European countries and the United States.

I started my second semester as a volunteer with one of the National Youth Organization’s summer projects, in which we traveled along the beaches of Uruguay to promote physical activity among youth. During the school term, I did an internship in the Office of International Relations in la Universidad de Montevideo and worked as a volunteer in an educational center. If you are interested in working towards breaking the cycle of poverty in some of Montevideo’s most marginalized neighborhoods, check out UNIDOS and Los Tréboles. These are two great non-profit organizations that organize holistic after-school programs, providing food, school help, and workshops for kids. Both centers will gladly receive longer-term volunteers. I loved working as a volunteer in UNIDOS, Monday to Saturday, alongside two stable employees of the center; the experience gave me a more realistic view of the extreme poverty that exists in Uruguay.

The INJU team and I during the summer project
The INJU team and I during the summer project, La Rodada.

Volunteering in UNIDOS
Volunteering with the UNIDOS organization.

Recommendation and Gratitude

I greatly recommend taking a year for one’s study (or interning) abroad. I found that during my first six months in Uruguay, I was simply getting used to my surroundings; it is during the second semester that I started to immerse myself fully in the experience of living the country. I was able to strengthen my relationships while deepening my involvement in meaningful activities with the community. In so doing, I learned to understand the Uruguayan way of life at a far more personal level than one semester allowed.

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