Students & School

As international students in the IFSA-Butler program, the 16 of us are allowed to take classes in both la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaiso and la Universidad Técnica Federico de Santa Maria. We tend to think of la Católica as the foremost school, as its home to the IFSA offices where our international classes are, and not all students attend la Santa Maria. Here are some descriptions of the universities themselves and my experiences in them.

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La Católica; the school faces the ocean and the setting sun

La Católica de Valparaíso is a private, Catholic university founded in Valparaiso 1928. It has sister universities in Concepción and Santiago. Unlike our Susquehanna bubble, that is so common of private colleges in the United States, la Católica has buildings spread all across Valparaiso, where different carreras (majors) have their own classes. The system of carreras is different as well. While we’re so accustomed to a rather high level of inter-major interaction (as students are required to take classes outside their major) Chilean students find it very odd that we international kids jump around from building to building, taking history, science, and physical education classes. This is because once their carrera is chosen, switching is both difficult and uncommon. Choosing a carrera is the direct result of a high-stakes test called la prueba de selección universitaria (PSU) taken after you graduate high school. Your score out of 800 determines which schools you can go to and what you can study there. The hardest carreras (medicine, sciences) usually ask for a score of 750 or above. The result of this is groups of students in the same carrera, that stay very close together, sharing almost every class every year during  their time at university.

We take 15-16 credits worth of classes, divided between international, IFSA classes, and classes with Chileans. These IFSA classes are small, no more than 8 students each, as only our group is allowed to take them. La Católica has more than 800 international students, all given very specific and quality experiences through their international department. One of our IFSA classes is advanced Spanish, which is the only one that is technically required. IFSA offers several classes, such as, “Sociopolitical History of Chile” and “Chilean Society and Community Action” both of which I am enrolled in. Every discussion in class, between students and professors, is in Spanish.

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Half of my Community Action class is an internship. Here I am with Julia and Ximena cooking and serving food in a comedor in Valpo.

La Universidad Tecnica Federico Santa Maria is another private, prestigious university hosting about 18000 students. It was created in 1926 at the request and extraordinary wealth of a Chilean Federico Santa Maria. As a technical university, it focuses very heavily on, “engineering, science, and technology”. Unlike PUCV, the students stay on one of the three campuses for all of their classes. The main campus in Valparaiso is best described as a fortress overlooking the sea.

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Behind this main building are 10 others like it, along with a pool and a soccer pitch.

I’m (re)taking organic chemistry here in the Santa Maria, and there’s very much a sentiment of higher education. That is to say, Santa Maria is one of (if not the) best university in the country, and the students, professors, and general appearance of wealth all show that. The place is beautiful, the people are friendly, and I really enjoy my class there. I’ve spoken with several Chileans about problems American students face in our frustrating educational system, and they seem to share them. University is still extraordinarily expensive, students are put under too much pressure, and class diversity is very low. The creator’s thinking for his university was to offer a rigorous, useful education to every kind of Chilean family, to make Valparaiso a center of scientific and technological advancement, but money always talks, and the past 20 years have seen much larger economic barriers to entry all across the educational system here. And as for making a better Chile, the American-funded coup d’état in 1973 put quite the damper on that as well (which we’ll talk plenty about later).

I’ve got my first big test this week at USM, let’s hope it goes well.

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La Ciudad

I’d like to take a blog post to simply explain where I live and what the surrounding area is like. We’ll begin at my house in Viña del Mar, Chile. Viña del Mar is a 10 minute micro ride from Valparaíso, and is oddly distinct from the city itself. Some Chileans distinguish Valparaíso the city from Gran Valparaíso, which is the city, Viña del Mar, Con Cón, Reñaca, Quilpué, and Villa Alemana, which are all smaller city towns slightly north.

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It’s generally agreed upon that the more northern the town, the wealthier the community. The term here is cuico, meaning those with money, connections, and higher standards of living. They’re the opposite of flaite, who I’ll discuss in another blogpost. This stereotype is pretty well founded, and is a Chilean trend, as in Santiago the city is filled with densely packed poor communities and wealthier citizens living on the city edges beneath the mountains.

Viña itself contains a mix of cerro, plan, and for lack of a better term, regular housing. Much of coastal Chile is very geographically abrupt. That is, we have the ocean in front of us, but hundreds of feet of vertical distance to reach the different neighborhoods. There are hundreds of cerros in Valpo, all of which are very high up and very tightly packed.

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About halfway up through the Valparaíso cerros

Everything surrounding the cerros at sea level is plan. I live in neither of these spaces. I live on 2 Norte and 4 Poniente, across the bridge from all that elevation.

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This grid system is the only reason I haven’t been lost yet

This part of Viña del Mar is very different than Valparaíso. It’s simply more organized. The grid system, the street shops, and even the street vendors just feel less erratic than the city itself. That’s not to say it’s better, as there’s still violence, theft, and general danger, but Avenida Libertad and Plaza Vergara are great references to guide oneself through the city.

Two other IFSA students live in this area, on 5 and 8 Norte. One lives across the bridge, and five live up in the cerros of Viña. The remaining half are similarly dispersed across Valpo. This distribution gives us a great range of how the communities differ, despite their closeness, and keeps us from hunkering down in one “international” neighborhood.

We still do that too much though.

La Familia

I live with a Chilean family of five in Viña del Mar. Nacho (20) is a student at a different university, Pancho (25) is an almost pro tennis player, and Diego (28) lives in Canada with his fiancé. Xime and Toño are in their late 50s and live relatively middle class. The families we live with are quite varied, with some in apartments with only a 9 year old sister, another living with an older widow, and many others with people coming in and out of the house. These families are compensated, as they provide us with food, washing & ironing, and safety. But they are families that welcome us into their culture and language; they teach us what Chile actually is.

For example, the public transport system is a series of many different colored busses called micros. The first few days my madre would show me which micro to take to university and back home, how to ask the micreros for help if we need it, and the general layout of Viña and Vaplo.

My brothers are very much brothers. We share what we need, talk about school and sports, and can ask more difficult questions. Just watching their dynamics and personalities is intriguing. Pancho is much milder and more relaxed, as my madre said. He’s had a steady girlfriend (polola) for five years, doesn’t party all that often, and does well in school. He’s helpful and speaks clearly so I can understand him better. Nacho, meanwhile, is a macho successful athlete party-goer who speaks faster than any Chilean I’ve met. Together, they provide a clear range of what my generation of people do in Chile.

Gender roles are clearly defined in this country. This machismo environment is changing, especially among college students, but it is certainly visible in adults and our families. For example, women cook and clean. This is true of any household here. The madre of my friend in the program was sick this week, so her husband did the cooking. This was the first time my friend saw him cook, where she found out he loves cooking and is arguably better than his wife. In my house, both Toño and Xime cook (they own and operate a cafe in the summer together) but Xime will always clean the pots and pans, clear the table, and sweep the kitchen. Even further, on several occasions the parents of Toño and Xime have come for a meal or two, and without fail both grandmothers (who are at least 80) will clear the table before anyone else can. If/when Pancho and I try to help, we’re told, “I’m used to it, let me do it, don’t worry about it.”

These families have accepted us, and I think their inclusion is the single best way to feel integrated into life abroad. I can speak their language, learn the slang, and taste their food. What else do we need?