Spring semester study abroad deadlines just around the corner. For travel inspiration, we spoke to Rose Hill senior Bridget Dahl, just back from her year abroad. She spent the fall in Santiago, Chile and the spring in Barcelona. Bridget tells us what she learned, what was weird, and why she’s happy she went off the beaten path.
When you were in Santiago, what was your living situation?
I was in a home stay with a host family.
What was that like?
It was good and bad. It was bad because I didn’t get along with my host dad. He was really sexist and treated me like I was an idiot. For a long time I thought I was the reason we weren’t getting along so I was really sad and confused. I had to realize that some people just don’t get along, and to consider the cultural differences that were causing these problems.
And the good part?
I learned a lot about Chilean culture from being in a home stay rather than with other international students. It was even better in Spain because I loved my host mom. We would sit and talk for hours every night so I could practice, which was awesome. In Chile it was harder because I didn’t get along with my family so I spent as little time with them as possible. But I still think it helped a lot. The more exposure you have to the language the better.
Do you think people had preconceived ideas about you because you’re American?
Definitely, and not just my host family but everyone in the culture. I asked one of my Chilean friends what people think about Americans and he told me that most people think one of several things: very rural Chileans are totally bewildered by anything coming from American culture, and people in more modern areas either don’t like you or like you in spite of the fact that you’re American.
Did you still make a lot of Chilean friends or did you end up gravitating toward other international students?
I made some really good Chilean friends that I still talk to, but it took a while. But it was really important for learning the language because you speak Spanish with them all the time.
Was there any culture shock going from Chile to Barcelona in the spring?
There was but I don’t think the change from one country to the other had anything to do with it. It was more the type of American students who choose to go to Barcelona, in contrast with the type that choose to go to Chile. A lot of people I was with in Chile were all about learning the history and language; they wanted to really immerse themselves in the culture. And a lot of US students in Barcelona were all about the club scene, which was cool because Barcelona has awesome nightlife but it was also hard for me because I had such a strong cultural experience my first semester.
How did you immerse yourself in Barcelona?
I led an English conversation class with Spanish students so I ended up making a lot of friends there.
What was it like leading the conversation class?
I got an hour four times a week to talk to this group about whatever I want. I got their perspective on both American and Spanish culture, plus meeting with the same people all semester helped me really get to know them.
Did you have any especially cool weekend or side trips in Chile?
Too many to count. One of my favorites was the Independence Day celebration. We took all these random buses to get to a really obscure campsite but it ended up being this secret Chilean hotspot. Everyone was there having a great time and drinking. They were so friendly and by the end of the week the whole campsite became super close amigos.
What about in Spain?
I went on a backpacking trip along the Costa Brava, which had really beautiful nature. One night we just found a random spot and camped off the trail.
What’s one of the strangest experiences you had?
A lot of people in Chile perceive American girls as being really loose, and our first night out we didn’t know that so we weren’t equipped to handle it. We went out in a neighborhood with international students; Chilean guys knew that and would go there to pick up American girls. Apparently it’s assumed when you dance with someone that you’re good to go, so once we started dancing with these guys they became extremely aggressive. In Spain, there was something called “sexy beer”, which was sold on the side of the road for a dollar.
Were there any other difficult cultural adjustments?
The way women are viewed and treated in South America. The boy I was seeing while I was there totally respected me, but he’d always try to carry my bags and whatnot and we’d fight about it. We’d been raised so differently in that respect.
For students who want to study abroad would you recommend going somewhere like Chile that’s not as typical?
For me it was important to go somewhere a little different, especially for the language aspect. In South America I really had to speak Spanish, whereas in Barcelona I could’ve gotten by without it. There’s a trend in study abroad where it’s becoming really Americanized. You can’t break out of your “abroad bubble” unless you push yourself. It’s weird because you’re supposedly going there to get a legitimate experience and you’re just hanging out with people from your own country. So I think it’s important to consider that when you’re choosing where to study.