I had never been outside the U.S. before my current Education Abroad program in Santiago, Chile. While I’ve taken some trips around the country, most of my experiences stem from the same Texas suburb. Therefore, when family or friends asked what I was looking forward to before embarking, I had difficulty answering. I didn’t have experiences or perspectives to aid my expectations for a months-long trip to South America.
I struggle with the same task as I wind down in a cozy hotel room on a rainy day here in Northern Patagonia. Although I’m halfway through my summer program (or winter, as it is in Santiago), I still feel the same difficulty wrapping my head around all the changes I’ve experienced. I’ve had so much fun and learned many new things, but I’ve also had challenges. And while I struggle to find a more extensive perspective during my time here, I can already see the benefits of the challenges I have faced. Landing in Santiago began what felt like drinking from a fire hose. Learning to control the flow has been unbelievably rewarding.
When I arrived and the hose was unleashed, I was overwhelmed and didn’t know how to handle it. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem all that bad, but I had trouble experiencing so many new things simultaneously. Some struggle highlights from the first week include hiding in the airport restroom because I was unsure how to get a taxi and replying only with “¡sí!” or “no, gracias” to my host mom because I was nervous. I also had my backpack stolen with my laptop inside (rest in peace) during my first week. Additionally, the culture and language barriers and the sheer size of Santiago did not take long to prove themselves mighty foes for someone like me with limited exposure to places that don’t have an H-E-B within a 10-mile radius.
After the first few days, I lay on my bed inside my homestay, convincing myself that I had made a mistake, and tried to conjure up excuses to go home that toed the line of plausible but not cliché. I didn’t seriously consider the idea of leaving, but the thought of home provided me with the comfort I needed. As the weeks have passed, my relationships have proven to be the highlight of my study abroad experience. They have helped release my mind from the doubts weighing it down. Not only did relationships here in Chile get me off my bed and out of my head, but they’ve also served as a support system that I was missing from my family and friends back home.
I became fast friends with the other students in my program. No one knew each other before the trip, and most of us came from different parts of the U.S., but it didn’t take long before our friendships felt like they’d developed over months. They are the kind of friends you just click with and open up to with ease. We’ve explored nearby cities, braved Chilean entertainment venues and exchanged knowledge of various slang words with our Chilean friends. Words like “weón,” which means dude, friend or jerk, depending on the context and “bacán,” meaning cool or nice. We’re all experiencing something novel and sometimes nerve-racking, and having each other to count on has been a primary source of happiness when I need extra support.
My relationship with my host mom, María Elena, has also been memorable during my trip. María Elena lives by herself in a small apartment in Ñuñoa, a municipality right outside the heart of the city. When I arrived, she told me she was now like my Chilean mother and wanted me to feel comfortable and happy in her apartment. She does not speak English, and my Spanish vocabulary is limited. But that hasn’t stopped us from having hour-long conversations about everything under the sun. She is passionate about environmental and social justice issues and hopeful that I and my generation will significantly impact the world for the better. My interactions with her have helped bridge a language, cultural and generational gap inside my head, providing me with perspectives unlike any I have experienced thus far in my life.
The other relationships that have enhanced my time in Santiago have been more auxiliary. While less developed than those with my friends or host mom, they have proven to be just as important. These include professors that share Chilean music recommendations, employees at my internship who guide me through business culture in Chile, sweet stray dogs that become quick friends and Chilean skaters excited to skate with a boy from Texas. Interactions of this nature have helped me become comfortable speaking to strangers and have made Santiago feel more like home.
After my rough first week in Santiago, I expressed my struggles to my sister, who studied abroad in Guatemala and lived there for two years after graduating. She was familiar with the overwhelming emotions that come with moving to a new place. She told me her experience gave her confidence, which has stayed with her all these years later. With each passing day in Chile, I feel that confidence building. My time in Santiago and the relationships I’ve developed serve as a testament to my ability to navigate unfamiliar territory and create connections wherever I may find myself.
This post was contributed by Alec Barrett, a Global Ambassador for Summer 2023. Alec is a junior economics studies major interning and studying abroad in Santiago, Chile.