My semester abroad at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile.
11 months, 23 days and 12 hours ago, I arrived at Santiago de Chile airport. I had thousands of thoughts, worries and expectations swimming around my head and my heart was ready for a new adventure. I didn’t have any idea at that point where I would sleep for the next few days; not the faintest idea where I would live and no idea how my life would look over the coming five months. But somehow I had plenty of confidence that it would all work out well.
Looking back now, I can say for certain that my confidence was justified. The time I spent in Chile was one of the best and most significant in my life. In this report, I will try to divide up the most important experiences into different sections to give students a few helpful tips for their journey into a new country and a new culture:
Everyday university life: In Chile, there is a very distinct university culture. Despite the relatively high student fees, university is accorded a high status in life. This means that the university is a central place for learning and meeting and getting to know people. Lectures are given in Spanish but you can quickly integrate and progress with a basic level of knowledge. Making contact with the locals is easier if you speak the national language because English is often not an option.
My tip: For your foreign adventure, choose a country whose language you would like to learn or improve and try to use the language by chatting lots to locals and avoiding international languages like English, where possible. Enjoy the everyday university life – you will probably never again have such a relaxed and casual learning experience. Choose the subjects which interest you and not those which require the least effort. Join in with the lesson, talk about Austria and give presentations about your home town. You are privileged to have four to five months of access to professors, facilities and exceptional course content at your host university abroad – take full advantage of it.
Travel: Chile is a hugely fascinating country. From the seemingly endless Atacama desert in the north to the breath-taking Tierra del Fuego in the south, Chile offers an unbeatable variety of landscapes, vegetation and animal species. It would almost be a crime not to indulge in this fascination. When it comes to travel and exploring foreign countries during the semester abroad, I would essentially say: do it! Make sure that it fits in well with your timetable, take a big backpack, download the couchsurfing app and hop on the next train, bus or plane!
Culture shock: It is not always easy being a tall, light-skinned girl in Chile. There were moments on the underground where I realised roughly what it must feel like to be foreign and different in another country. Glances of curiosity and amazement. The people of Chile living in remote or poor areas predominantly only know blonde hair from TV programmes and don’t understand why the dark colouring is not present in the eyes. But in the district where my apartment was based, people were used to seeing the ‘western appearance’.
In the poorer districts of Santiago, things are very different. I can clearly remember one Sunday during my weekly explorations, when I wandered round with no plan or destination in mind, getting off at an unknown underground station and walking through the streets. A man stopped me and asked me what I was doing there. I told him where I come from and that I wanted to see the city. He invited me to eat a bowl of Cochayuyo with him and I joined him and his family on the street – eating, laughing and sharing stories. We couldn’t have been more different in terms of our looks but we are all the same inside. In this case, we were connected by a mutual appreciation, humour and a good dose of seaweed! Your experiences will probably be different but no less heart-warming!
My tip: Set out on your semester abroad with an open mind and lots of curiosity. A healthy dose of caution is needed but fear and prejudice have a limiting effect and often prevent you from enjoying some of the best experiences.