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Students return from term abroad in Chile

Ricky Ochilo, staff writer

During this past fall term, a group of students led by Spanish Professor Luis Arevalo visited Chile as part of Warren Wilson’s study abroad program. The study abroad focused on understanding the history, heritage and cultural identity of Chile.

“The benefit for the students was two fold. [The trip] provided a great improvement in language skills and first hand experience in Chile culture and history in a very practical way,” Arevalo said.

Prior to visiting Chile, the students took part in a course titled Chile, Language, History and Culture. Arevalo explained that most of the literature the students read in preparation for the trip was accounts of famous travellers like Darwin, Sarah Wheeler and Ercilla of the 16th century. He added that certain observations made by travellers like Darwin had gone as far as to characterize “inhabitants of Southern Chile as not human and that their language was a series of grunts.”

Arevalo pointed out that obviously Darwin never spoke nor understood the language and that led to his misplaced claim.

Some of the places the students visited were the towns of Santiago and Punta Arenas, which are located in the southern most part of Chile. Senior Callie Baruch, sophomore Ariel Studenmund and junior Brent Figlestahler were among the students that went to Chile.

For Studenmund the study helped her understand issues related to historical political movements and provided an opportunity to explore the language while immersing her in Chilean culture. Like Studenmund, Baruch felt that the study abroad program helped her understand the traditions of Chile. Apart from that, it helped her to fully analyze Chilean lifestyle while allowing for social interactions to broaden her cultural experience.

The group also visited Chiloe Island, which for the most part is made up of a rural community that practices agriculture and fishing. On one occasion the students took a four day drive crossing Argentina to visit Punta Arenas.

Studenmund explained that a new realization for her was to see that the Chileans lived according to their beliefs. Despite the increase of modern technology and European influence, a majority of the Chilean’s have preserved their cultural identity.

“I learned a lot about the U.S. culture and that gender roles [in Chile] are a big issue,” said Figlestahler.
Being in Chile helped Figlestahler understand his own culture in comparison to the Chilean lifestyle.
Baruch emphasized that there were certain elements of gender discrimination which required women to prove themselves more. She added that her friend female friend was a local in Chiloewas working in agronomy, and the men did not take her seriously. Figlestahler maintained that even within their friend’s family, she was not allowed to work outside and was constrained as a housewife.

Baruch, Studenmund and Figlestahler agree that the trip had a positive impact on their overall outlook about Chile.

“I found them to be happy with their way of life and not focused much on business and development like we are,” Studenmund said.

A surprising aspect for Figlestahler was that he discovered the culture varied throughout the country. When they visited different parts of Chile, Figlestahler, Baruch and Studenmund found unique lifestyles and varying cultural values from region to region.

Besides that, the students were involved with some service work. Studenmund explained that they helped in cleaning up trash at a park for the city of Castro as part of a biodiversity fare.
There were some challenges that the students encountered as well.

“Personally not having experience with the Spanish language made it harder for me,” Baruch said. However, she mentioned she was happy to have other students who knew and understood the language to help her communicate. Baruch feels that the language barrier pushed her more and made her want to relate. But it took some time as she questioned her confidence.

Another challenge for Figlestahler particularly was keeping himself away from the food. He added that it was hard not to gain weight and even harder to resist the delicious food. He recalled enjoying Kuranto, a dish made with potatoes, meat and mussels over hot rocks and covered with big leaves. A climax during the trip was when the students tasted congealed blood after Figlestahler helped the locals slaughter a ram. He explained that the blood was mixed with olive oil, garlic and lime.

But there were times where Figlestahler felt the people had “preconceived notions” about white people. He found it hard to overcome the gringo mindset usually associated with tourists. Even more, he noted that it made it harder to learn as a student given the existing stereotypes.

Nonetheless, Baruch feels the study was worthwhile and enjoyable because she was able to see and study the difference between individualistic cultures versus a group or family orientated lifestyle. Likewise, despite the differences they were still able to share experiences and connect with the Chileans. Arevalo maintained that the best aspect of the trip was it allowed the students to confront preconceptions about Chile and find out that “life in Chile might be different but it is still wholesome.”

“It was a breath of fresh air. Geographically, I’ve never been far away from the American life,” Studenmund said.

She recalled visiting Quehni Island and appreciating the simple, slow paced farming lifestyle of the people. She added that the people only had electricity two hours a day but were able to live happily and were carefree. Figlestahler mentioned that he misses the captivating beauty of the landscape, glaciers and mountains.

Overall, the students feel they benefited greatly. Studenmund expressed her awakening and found herself beginning to question what is necessary to live a good life? Figlestahler now understands what it means to have a cultural identity. He explained that the Chiloe people attached meaning to their land and from that there was an understanding of who they are. Baruch added that she no longer feels isolated.

“The physical experience gave me a chance to relate to others and see that we are almost the same,” Baruch said.

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