Widespread social unrest and political violence in a number of Latin American nations created an unprecedented situation for the Office of Off-Campus Study, which has offered six students studying abroad in Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia the option to alter their abroad experiences to assure their safety.
“I think this is honestly the first time we’ve had a student get options for remaining on site or returning to the U.S., or to ship to a new site,” Christine Wintersteen, director of off-campus study said. “[For example,] we have happened to not have had students in Egypt during the Arab Spring.”
As of publication, only one student has had to leave her program. Jessa Solis ’19 enrolled in the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) program in Quito, Ecuador, where protests escalated quickly and violently, forcing IES to charter flights for students to leave the country. Solis is currently on campus completing an independent study for the remainder of the semester. The other five students—three in Middlebury’s Valparaíso program, one in Middlebury’s Santiago program and one in an SIT program in Cochabamba, Bolivia, remain in their host countries.
Since the protests in Chile began in early October, Wintersteen has since received nearly daily updates from Middlebury on the situation. When protests were at their worst, classes were suspended and students were advised to shelter in place. Representatives from Middlebury’s Global Rescue team have visited the country to assess the situation first-hand.
Wintersteen has remained in constant contact with programs in all three countries over the past two weeks. Addressing the situation of each individual student abroad, she has tried to prioritize safety while also still respecting each student’s situation and decision-making ability.
Wintersteen explained that programs refer to the U.S. Department of State’s travel advisory warnings as a guideline in these scenarios, with level one being the lowest precaution and level four advising no travel whatsoever.
“One of the key differences between Chile and Ecuador was that although the travel advisory level increased from one to two, two is, according to the U.S. State Department, still sort of within the framework of having some infrastructure and safety,” said Wintersteen. “In Ecuador, the travel advisory escalated very quickly from two to four, which results in a really different series of responses.”
Solis’ former host city of Quito is still designated as level four as of Thursday. However, both Chile and Bolivia are still designated as level two’s and thus have been deemed safe for students to continue their studies if they choose to do so.
Lucia Gagliardone ’20, who studied in Valparaíso last spring, said she is using her experiences last year to make sense of the complicated situation.
“I saw moments that were a foreshadowing to what is currently happening,” she said. “Frankly, it was something that was building, it was a series of unique economic injustices that are based [on] the neoliberal system that piled up.”
After the protests slowed, Middlebury in Chile gave students the option to resume their coursework in-country, return home and pursue a remote course load or switch programs to Middlebury in Buenos Aires, Argentina for the remainder of the semester.
“Students have really different reactions,” said Wintersteen. “So I’ve had some students say ‘no matter what happens I’m staying in Chile,’ and then others say ‘I’m considering options. I’d like to know how that would work out credit-wise.’”
Norell Sherman ’21 has opted to stay in Valparaíso for the remainder of the semester. Although she has not had class in two weeks due to the demonstration, her program found other ways to make sure she gets credit, creating new classes and providing alternate assignments.
The program has forbidden students from participating in the protests, but Sherman has still found ways to get involved.
“Even though I couldn’t protest in the marches and concentrations, I was still able to participate in some mobilization—for example, the cacerolazo [a form of popular protest which features the banging of pots and pans]. Every night of the past two weeks at 8 p.m. my neighborhood has [gathered] outside our houses to bangs pots with big spoons for one hour. Before this all starts, my host mom and I plug in this massive speaker and play Victor Jara’s song, ‘El Derecho de Vivir en Paz,’” Sherman wrote in a message to the Orient.
“The caserolazos have been so powerful and beautiful. The city turns into this giant orchestra; you stand outside your house and can hear banging pots everywhere and look around and see people outside their windows in all parts of the neighborhood, standing on roofs, and it’s truly an incredible form of connection,” said Sherman.
Despite the protests, Sherman says that she wouldn’t dream of leaving.
Gagliardone too asked students to not let the protests dissuade them from studying in Chile, or other places in Latin America. Instead, she asked students to look for lessons that can be learned from the peaceful demonstrations happening all over the continent.
“I’m witnessing the ways in which popular power can truly create change,” Sherman explained. “It’s empowering.”