Expanding my mind

A little over two months into my program, I figure it might be time to talk about something none of my other posts have touched upon…school.  Contrary to what my photos may reveal, I am indeed studying in Argentina; in fact, I’m directly enrolled in three Argentine universities and taking all my classes in Spanish.

While the workload isn’t as time-consuming as it is in America, class itself is certainly a challenge.  It requires my most intense concentration skills, seeing as if I doze off for one second thinking about a trip I’m looking forward to or what my host mom is making for dinner or that cute Porteño I met at a bar last week, I’ll return to the discussion quite lost.

This past Thursday, I made my 45-minute commute to la Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), Facultad de Filosofía y Letras.  It’s a rundown building with posters and graffiti covering every wall, a place where you have to watch your step for the freshly painted banners about some political event drying on the floor, and where it is not uncommon to see pigeons wandering around the classrooms (this happened twice to me—it doesn’t help the focusing, let me tell you).

My UBA profesora speaks fairly fast, but after two hours of lecture that I mostly comprehended, I was ready for the group discussion.  Usually I remain on the quieter side, listening to my peers without making particularly large contributions.  However, we’re currently reading a novel, La Biblia Envenenada (by Barbara Kingsolver) that is originally an American text.  While at first daunting—it’s over 600 pages—I actually understood the Spanish translation fairly well.  I also felt better after realizing that no one in my group had finished the book either (this isn’t me slacking… it’s over 600 pages!).

The professor told my group to discuss the impact of history in the book, which, to my advantage, includes allusions to American history.  Finally, a subject I could enlighten my Argentinean peers about—trust me, I have never been so happy to talk about the Jim Crow Laws.  As our conversation continued, I found myself contributing more than I ever had; for the first time, I really felt like an Argentinean student, and I have to say, it felt great.

That sense of belonging to an academic community is something I‘ve always taken for granted, both in high school and college.  In Argentina, however, that belonging doesn’t come nearly as naturally as it does in the states, especially because I look quite foreign (can’t help the pale skin) and obviously don’t speak perfect Castellaño.  I didn’t realize beforehand, but the ability to meaningfully contribute to a class discussion is quite important to me; doing so on Thursday helped me feel immensely more academically comfortable and confident here.

Studying abroad encapsulates an astonishingly large subject matter for a mere two-word phrase.  Sure, I’m abroad, fortunate enough to have the opportunity to meet new people, travel, and explore a city.  Yet the other half of the equation is, of course, the studying.  That’s the part of this experience I thought would be the least enjoyable, and while I’m not saying I particularly like doing work, the ability to directly enroll in Argentine universities is something I have a profound appreciation for.  It allows me to see a part of Buenos Aires that I honestly would not have been able to encounter otherwise.

I think you can learn a lot about a nation by reflecting upon its educational system, but it’s certainly difficult to observe that part of culture without studying in said place.  While getting to know another country is stereotypically associated with visiting museums, historical buildings, the theater, etc.—and I’m in no way suggesting these things are not integral (I went to a performance of Casi Normales, the Argentinean version of Next to Normal, and was blown away because I didn’t realize that a musical in another language could move me that much)—I do think immersing yourself in an educational system provides a unique opportunity to discover how the citizens of a country learn.

I’m the first person to call myself a nerd.  I’ve always genuinely liked going to school, but something I don’t love is how easy it is to fall into a monotonous academic routine.  Because college in Argentina is different than anything I’ve ever experienced, however, it makes me even prouder when I’m successful in the classroom; learning in a second language, while sometimes daunting, is largely what’s making this semester abroad so meaningful.  Taking risks is something I think Cornell emphasizes through its abroad programs, and while it seems like an annoying Arts & Sciences requirement to have to study in a country where you speak the language, it’s also a mindset I have a lot of respect for.  It’s important to sometimes leave your “educational element” because it’s too easy to fall into a routine and forget to, in the wise words that Steven Wittels has instilled in me for as long as I can remember, expand your mind.

About Olivia

Hola! My name is Olivia and I’ll be spending the spring semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’m an English major, Spanish minor (but potentially major, depending on how the semester abroad goes) in the College of Arts and Sciences. Outside of academics, I’m a member of the club tennis team, the co-chair of Colleges Against Cancer, and a sports writer for the Daily Sun. I’m a really active person who loves the outdoors, which is why South America is the perfect place for me; Patagonia and Machu Picchu are just two of the many places I hope to explore. I’ll be living in a homestay, and even though it won’t always be easy, eight years of studying Spanish will definitely help me get by. And although I have a terrible sense of direction, I’m genuinely looking forward to all the places I’ll discover while lost in Buenos Aires. Of course, I’m also ready for the steak, wine, partidos de fútbol, and potential tennis sports star sightings (Juan Martín del Potro, here I come). I can’t wait to share my experiences with all of you!
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