In Chile I attended la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (PUCV) as a full time student on the direct exchange program between PUCV and Hamline.
On the first day of orientation, a few days after I arrived in Chile, one of my hosts took me to the school and showed me how to take a micro (public bus) from Viña into Valpo where the majority of the University buildings were. The two cities are located side by side at a similar distance as St. Paul and Minneapolis and are connected mainly by one highway that curves along the bay and offers a spectacular view. After the 20 minute or so ride that would soon be so familiar to me, I got there and signed in amidst a bustling bunch of other exchange students, some more at ease than others, and most obviously grateful to just be in the same room as other people speaking their first language. "Rebecca J Golden, Groupo Q" said the sign on the wall so I found my respective table, received my letter sticker, and began the hilarious process of group introductions with all of the other wide-eyed Estadounidenses in my group. There are a wide array of opinions that exchange students have of their own kind. At one end of the continuum are those who would prefer to be the only non-chilean in Chile while at the other end, some cling to their fellow international students from day one. These sorts of attitudes are clear from first introductions and they play a large role in the formation of mini social groups. Personally, I think I fell somewhere in the middle, leaning to the side of wanting to make as many Chilean friends as possible and limiting the time I spent with exchange students. I thought that would be a good idea a. to help my spanish and b. because that was the best way for making the most of the experience, right? Well, to each their own but by the end I realized that the friendships that I formed with Americans and Europeans in Chile were equally important as the ones formed with Chileans. Everyone has something to teach you so my advice to future exchange students would be to keep an open mind and try to make as many friends as possible from both categories.
So after introductions everyone was herded into an auditorium where we were told in carefully dictated Spanish how welcome we were, that we just had to relax, who this and that was from the Oficina de Intercambios, and ultimately that this is among the most wonderful, formative and important times of life. It was funny to sit there though, looking around the room, realizing that those other 57 students -from 15 different countries- were sitting in a similar position, if not the same exact boat that I was. I wondered what exactly I, along with all of those other students, was doing there? What would it mean to everyone in the end? Why is studying abroad somehow worth the sacrifice and uncertainty of leaving one's comfort zone? At that point I still really didn't understand the answers to those questions but with so many people on the same track I thought we must be on to something...
Next we sat around with our group leader, a Chilean student, who talked about what the orientation week would look like. Following that was a reception in the courtyard where the students mingled and drank juice and coffee and ate little crustless avocado sandwiches before yet again being herded, more or less as one giant organism, outside where we watched some performers do a handful of traditional Chilean dances. It was during that reception that I first really saw proof that many of the other students's Spanish was just as broken as mine. From the beginning, using Spanish was a huge concern of mine and it was re-assuring to see that there were students of all levels there and that in relation to the others, I wasn't as much of a beginner as I had thought I was.
During the last part of that first orientation session we all took a language placement test that determined which Spanish class we'd take through the study abroad program as well as what level of other courses would probably be doable according to proficiency with the language. Those types of tests are funny: certain questions are completely affirming and make you feel all sure of yourself and your mad subjunctive, past perfect, or whatever else skills. Other questions do nothing more than prove that you do not indeed have a photographic memory. Its like you can remember the exact page in your textbook or day that you learned it but just can't quite jog your memory enough to see exactly what page 210 (the one with the picture of the man windsurfing, or playing a guitar, or painting a mural) said about imperfect subjunctive sentences. Re-assured or not from seeing that all of the students had different levels of capability with the language, I walked out of that room feeling like, given the chance, the bent paper clip on the floor just might speak better spanish than I could.
For the remainder of orientation week, we got tours of the university, which sprawls out with buildings in both cities. We also registered for classes under the supervision of Chilean students and study abroad office people who made sure that the classes we chose were manageable and that the schedules we wanted were physically possible (i.e. not having two classes 10 minutes apart on opposite sides of the city). All in all orientation was helpful and useful for establishing a few initial connections with people.
During the semester I ended up taking 16 credits that transferred back to Hamline. I took 20th Century Latin American History, The Construction of Collective Memory, Globalization and Chilean Society, Traditional Dances of Chile, General Literature, and Advanced Written and Spoken Spanish.
In general I found taking classes all in Spanish to be challenging but mostly in a positive way. The course material itself was not that difficult but doing it in a second language threw a different twist into it. The hardest course that I took was the literature one where the professor expected the one other exchange student in it and me to work just as proficiently as her Chilean students. Beyond the challenge of language, the initial weeks of scheduling and trying to find and start classes were frustrating because academic organization is a little different there than it is in the US. It isn't uncommon in Chile for a professor to just not show up or for a class to get canceled at the beginning of the semester without notice. Even though it was frustrating for awhile, I really had little choice but to go with the flow and in the end everything worked out.