Learning from my Mistakes by Rachel Leonard ’19

Rachel Leonard ’19
Majors: Latin American Studies & Anthropology 
 (Santiago), South America
Spring 2017

Hi everyone! My name is Rachel Leonard, I am a junior studying abroad in Santiago de Chile. As of November 16 I have about 20 days left in my semester, and since I am getting sentimental, I thought I would share with you some of the things I have learned in the hopes that you can learn from my mistakes, or at least have a clearer sense of what studying abroad has entailed for me.

Do your research before you go

You need to ask yourself if you are choosing not only the right country, but the right program for you. Talk to people who have been on that program before, this will be incredibly helpful. As an athlete, I also researched whether I would be able to find a track and a weight room to use, and talked to another runner from Oberlin College who went to Santiago the previous fall to ask about her experience. You need to make sure there will be resources for you when you are abroad and opportunities that you want to take up! Of course, no matter how much research you do there will always be surprises when you actually arrive, but for me it was reassuring to gather as much information as possible before departure.

Studying abroad is not comfortable

And really, if you are completely comfortable while abroad, I think you’re doing something wrong. I have never been more uncomfortable than I have been in the last few months in Chile. I was insecure about my Spanish skills, I had never been so far from my family and friends before, and I had to figure out how to use public transportation, navigate a different university system, and communicate with a host family. I knew all of those challenges were in front of me before I left for Chile, but some of the other differences were surprising when I showed up. For example, Chileans greet each other differently here, academic expectations are different, and even the computer keyboards here are different. I also did not expect to stand out so much, which is something that has never really happened to me as a white person who attends a predominantly white institution and lives in a predominantly white town in the US. This is something that has been really important for me to experience. Overall, being in Chile has been really eye-opening, and this discomfort has pushed me to grow in ways I was not anticipating.

Culture shock is real

That being said, I dealt with culture shock pretty bad when I got here. I think the first six weeks were the hardest: I felt really isolated and was really questioning my decision to move to another hemisphere for six months. Although I had read about it before leaving the US, I did not realize I had culture shock for a few weeks until I was talking to a friend about how I felt and she told me I had basically just listed all of the common symptoms of culture shock. Luckily, all of the girls on my program (a fellow Colby student and 3 Washington University students) became really close, and my support network at home is pretty strong, and I was able to lean on them while I was adjusting to being in Chile.

Respect is key

I think I have learned a lot about respect this semester. I have learned to respect a culture that is not mine, to respect people who are helping me navigate it, and to respect myself and my own limits. It is also important to understand that just because something is unfamiliar or different from your home culture does not make it automatically worse (or automatically better).

You will mess up

So you just have to learn to laugh at yourself. I have tried to get on the metro at the end of the line, accidentally said la Guerra Pacífica (“Peaceful War”) instead of la Guerra del Pacífico (“Pacific War”), and had countless miscommunications with my host mom. All of these things seemed embarrassing at the time, but now are pretty funny in my opinion.

You need to take risks

At the beginning of the semester I was really self conscious about my accent or worried that I would not be understood, so a lot of the time I just stayed quiet. However, in the past five months that has changed. For example, the other day my friends and I went to a book fair, and I could not remember the name of a really popular Chilean children’s book series, so I asked a man who was working the fair. This is something I instantly would have shied away from back in June when I had arrived, so this shows progress, no matter how small.

With that, I conclude my post. I have had a great time in Chile despite my countless mishaps, and while I have learned a lot here I am excited to come back to the Hill. If you are considering studying abroad in Chile (I chose the WashU program) or just generally have questions about being abroad, I would be more than happy to share more about my experience with you–just shoot me an email at rleonard@colby.edu.