Saturday, March 20, 2010

Back to the libros

Two years later, and I'm back to class. I might be a capable, 24-year-old adult this time around, but that hasn't kicked my jitters. The day after I moved to Valparaiso I started my orientation for foreign students in a modern building down the street belonging to the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso. South American universities consist of faculty buildings spread throughout a city (or in this case three cities) rather than the North American concept of sprawling, landscaped campuses. That morning I met the four other exchange students in my group of independents, those of us who came to Chile without a study abroad program offered by a private agency or university. We were two Americans, a Japanese guy and two German girls, ages 23-28.

Our student monitor, Natalia, reminisced about the culture shock and linguistic difficulties she'd survived during the six months she'd studied in Mexico earlier this year. Then she led us to an auditorium with the other 260 exchange students (66 percent of the foreign students in the university of 14,000 come from the U.S.) where we listened to important deans present speeches peppered with earthquake history and facts. Afterward we headed to the balcony, where we snacked on avocado and tomato sandwiches and jugos naturales (sugary juice) while watching Chilean folk dance performances accompanied by an impressive live band. The dancers changed costumes four times to perform dances from various regions of Chile, including a saucy number from Valparaiso.

During the next orientation session I got my results from the nerve-wracking Spanish exams and signed up for classes. In a chaotic room, a student representing each department sat at a table ready to answer our questions and enroll us in our courses. I sat down at every table (well except mathematics, engineering, science and business -- anything with earning potential) to interrogate the monitors about the most engaging and entertaining classes in their departments taught by professors with clear spoken Spanish and an empathy for foreign students. So, now I'm signed up for classes in five different departments. And I'm looking forward to all of them, although I have a month to drop and add classes to find my ideal combination.

1. Literature: Intro to the Latin American Detective Novel
2. Physical Education: Personal Health and Active Living
3. Art: Basic Concepts of Cinematic Language
4. Journalism: Multimedia Journalism or Graphic design (still deciding)
5. Architecture: American Workshop: Urban Spaces
6. Art: Paper Making Workshop
7. Art: Human Experience in the Ideas of 20th Century Art

This week, I started classes and realized that while two of them are a 10-minute walk to the historic Casa Central in gritty downtown, the other four are 20-40 minutes away by bus. Oh, how fondly I remember the days of biking to class in Charleston. Now I fear for my life squished on maniacal buses or walking the edges of the taped off sidewalks of post-earthquake Valpo.

Tuesday night I realized that I'd have to wake up at 6 a.m. to get to my journalism class on time. I walked the streets the next morning in the dark and avoided shifty figures as I waited nearly 30 minutes to catch a bus with standing room only to the Curauma campus nearly 40 minutes away. I arrived to the giant modern building at exactly 8:15 a.m. to find the classroom empty and locked. The professor showed up around 9 a.m. to hand us the syllabus and dismiss the class.

The next day I bussed to my art class only to discover after 30 minutes of frantically searching the streets and berating my ability to survive in a foreign country that the faculty had moved 20 minutes away to the Miraflores neighborhood due to earthquake damages. When I arrived an hour late I found out class had been canceled for a professors' meeting.

In the meantime I'm waiting. Waiting for classes to really start. Waiting for the university gym to open and the fitness classes to begin. Waiting to get the schedules for the language exchanges, volunteer projects, and photography workshop I signed up for during orientation. Waiting for Rotary to contact me so I can start attending meetings and giving presentations. And most impatiently, waiting for the water heater repairs in my apartment after two weeks of cold showers.

I used to say the only thing holding me back from joining the Peace Corps was the almost certain absence of hot showers. God is laughing at me.

(images courtesy of and


  1. If you don't mind a little advice: Key to navigation in la catolica is knowing where all the secretaries offices are, and finding a non-foreign contact in your classes. each faculty's secretary should know about any changes. A contact in your classes can let you know about class changes you weren't there to hear... as the rest of the class probably has the same set of courses, sometimes class changes or info gets passed to them during another block.

    Also, I know nothing about the multimedia journalism class, but i have taken graphic design and found it somewhat of a let down. I suppose it depends on if you've ever done any photoshop or layout programs before, but that course covers only the very basics and essentially was a lot of free time to work on projects (which can be fun if you enjoy free time, but annoying if you have to get up early to spend that time away from your house, and also if the idea is to take in as much language and culture as possible, working independently on computer projects is not intense in that area). However, I did find it somewhat interesting and enjoyed doing some of the projects.... until I got back to the US and my university deemed the class not up to par and i had to retake graphic design there (repetitive but much better and in depth).

    I wonder how the architecture one will be- the department, campus and students are my favorite.

    Did you take that first picture standing on a bridge?!? if so, crazy! be careful

    if you ever need something or want to meet up let me know. i mean... i think i'm out of tsunami range ;-)

  2. Mil gracias por el consejo! Good tips about the secretary offices and student contact. Turns out I'm stuck in grafica due to a scheduling conflict, but I have no prior knowledge so I could use the exposure.

    I usually only post my own photos, but I still haven't worked up the nerve to whip out a camera here in Valpo so I borrowed those two images (see small print below).

    We should meet up some time! You seem to know your way around :) Do you live on a cerro? Lucky!

  3. Yes indeed! Probably 15 minutes walking from DUOC university.

    Grafica will hopefully be cool. I enjoyed the class for sure and i still have my big project which i thought was neat.

    Heheh, well in my theory... you're never gonna be safe with a camera so its not really worth the paranoia if you cant change it. that said, its good to not look like such an oblivious tourist, and you'll probably feel more comfortable taking photos when you yourself are comfortable walking around

    i carry a little point and shoot around a LOT but I definatily am picky about when I actually pull it out in full view.

  4. oh and yes, of course, if youw ant to do something. let me know. (maybe comment on my most recent blogpost so i notice?)


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