Featured image: A mural at Escuela La Victoria that reads “Public, Free, and Quality Education“
After 36 days in Chile, I can proudly report that I’ve only led my friends astray on the metro five times! We have one more week in Santiago before traveling, so here’s hoping I don’t make it six. Now that I have a routine and can (usually) find my way around, the days and weeks are flying by. For the month of March, my schedule alternated between Spanish class, a research methods course to prep for our final project, and thematic lectures focused on educational issues in Chile. We’ve also recently begun visits to local schools, which are not only incredibly fun, but also necessary to place our theoretical discussions in a real-life context.
Our first trip was to Escuela La Victoria, which serves 500 students in first through eighth grade. Since around 25% of students at Escuela La Victoria have been abandoned by their parents and do not have resources outside of school, the school aims to help students develop emotionally, socially, physically, and intellectually, with the hope that they can “transform their social context.”
Teachers and administrators described the school culture as loving, which was evident as groups of friendly students approached me during recess to introduce themselves and involve me in lengthy games of tag. My partner Meaghan and I also visited a sixth-grade classroom to give a presentation on our hometowns and lives in the U.S. I assumed that speaking Spanish in front of 30 middle schoolers would be a complete nightmare, but our class was friendly, full of questions, and eager to tell us more about Chile. At the end of our visit, the sixth-grade teacher mentioned to me that the school prioritizes supporting students, rather than improving their results on the SIMCE, Chile’s national standardized test. Given the concerning emphasis on test scores in U.S. schools, my experience at Escuela La Victoria reinforced the need to think historically and contextually in order to develop school environments that authentically serve communities.
During a weekend trip to Valparaíso, Chile, we had the opportunity to visit La Escuela Básica Laguna Verde, a municipal school located in a semi-rural community. The school is Pre-K through 8th grade, and between 57% and 77% of students live in socially vulnerable situations. The mission of Laguna Verde is to help students “to know,” “to do,” “to be,” and “to live together,” which occurs both inside the classroom and outside in their community garden. Students learn to care for plants and animals, and also work with teachers to create soap and essential oils from the ingredients they grow throughout the year. In this way, the school hopes to promote environmental consciousness, while providing practical skills that students can use to sustain themselves in the future.
I also visited a third-grade classroom and fielded questions from some very curious eight and nine-year-olds. Some of my favorite questions included if I have any children, if I’ve ever seen a tornado, and if sharks are a big problem where I live. Students were eager to chat even though we frequently misunderstood each other, and I received an adorable pile of drawings at the end of my visit, so I seem to have made a decent impression despite my confusing way of speaking.
After five weeks of consistent practice, I’ve noticed certain improvements with my Spanish. More and more, I understand the meaning of words without translating them into English, but I still frequently misinterpret what’s being said. During a visit to a technical high school in Valparaíso, the speaker mentioned that the school waitlists around 80 people each year. What I heard, however, was that waitlisted applicants couldn’t enroll until the year 2080. This seemed like an awfully long time to wait around, but who am I to judge? A bit confused, I asked a friend if she also thought the waitlist seemed ridiculously long, and she helped clarify as soon as she was done laughing at me.
All this to say, I find the language barrier to be one of the more difficult aspects of living abroad. At Vassar, most of my classes are discussion based, so I’m accustomed to participating and debating. I’m far more reluctant to express my ideas in Spanish, though, since I don’t have enough vocabulary, and can find myself mid-sentence with no clue how to proceed. Our teachers encourage us to speak in Spanish whenever possible, and staying in “Spanish mode” definitely helps me talk to my host mom at night, since my brain is prepped and ready to respond. I’ve also found that practicing Spanish with native speakers, rather than my SIT peers, acts as a much-needed reality check for how much further my language can still progress. March 25th was my host mom’s birthday, so the weekend before was filled with celebrations, each of which lasted a minimum of 6 hours. Adriana’s family and friends are warm and welcoming, but also speak rapidly and make jokes I rarely understand. Since one of my goals is to practice speaking colloquially, I’ve tried to swallow my pride and tell more stories about my life back home, even if I conjugate most verbs incorrectly in the process.
I’ve enjoyed settling into my life in Santiago, but also feel ready to continue exploring. During April, I’ll spend one week in a rural homestay in Temuco, Chile before a two week stay in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I’ll have to figure out public transportation all over again—wish me luck!