Most students studying in volatile foreign countries know to be vigilant when walking around at night, but juniors Alexandra Alvarez and Jessie Turner had to take more extreme precautions during their stay in Chile. As university students, they were caught in the midst of daily strikes and protests about the education system that occasionally turned violent. The protests began just as they were arriving, Alvarez in Santiago and Turner in the city of Valdivia.
The academic strikes started with the shuttering of some of Chile's public high schools and then spread to most public, and some private, universities. While Turner and Alvarez said they received different responses each time they asked Chileans about the cause of the strikes, they agreed that the overall goal of the strikes was for higher quality free education.
When Alvarez and Turner arrived in late July, they expected the strikes to be a momentary hiccup in their abroad experiences. In actuality, the strikes lasted for two months and soon became an everyday fact of life for both girls.
"I would walk right by the protests—it would be 50 or so kids walking around with one banner," Turner said. "I was also in a smaller city though."
Alvarez testified to the larger scale of the protests in Santiago and recalled witnessing a peaceful demonstration from her classroom window.
"We only saw half of the total amount of people that were protesting that day, and it was in the thousands," she said. "Different groups and organizations would create their own banners, wear the same T-shirts, make their own signs, and walk together. It had more of a parade feel to it than a protest feel."
Not all strike demonstrations were this peaceful.
"Anarchists and young kids that wanted to take advantage of the potential chaos would start throwing things at police cars and setting things on fire," Alvarez said. "Certain people would make the situation into a violent act, but that did not embody the movement at all."
Both Alvarez and Turner experienced an unfortunate side effect of the rowdier demonstrations—tear gas.
"Every Thursday, you knew there would be tear gas," said Alvarez. "It would seep down into the subway system. You'd feel a tickle in your throat and your eyes would prickle."
Even in the quieter city of Valdivia, Turner became familiar with the signs of tear gas.
"Sometimes it would linger in the air, so you'd walk out of your house and smell it and start crying," said Turner. "I'd say, 'Ahh, and there's the tear gas.'"
To protect students, both Turner's and Alvarez's programs sent out strict warnings about attending or lingering in the vicinity of protests.
"Our program emphasized from the beginning that we could not participate in the demonstrations because 99 percent of the time, the police would get involved and we could end up being deported," explained Alvarez.
Alvarez, a sociology major and education minor, chose to study with IFSA Butler in Santiago in order to practice her Spanish in an urban setting.
"I wanted a bigger city because I experienced the small town feel already from being in Brunswick," said Alvarez. "It would be nice to be in a hub where from there, I could travel easily, get around easily, and be around a lot of people."
Turner decided on Chile because of the homestay option. In Valdivia she studied at Universidad Austral de Chile with the Middlebury in Chile program, known for its intense language pledge component. While administrators did not enforce the pledge, students adhered to it on their own initiative.
"The program attracts students that are willing to not speak English for five to six months," Turner said. "We only spoke English to call home."
Turner said she was not deterred by notifications sent from her program that universities all around the country had started striking just before her departure.
"I didn't know anything about the strikes because I wasn't following it on the news; I was so ready to leave and wasn't nervous at all," Turner explained.
In contrast, Alvarez was extremely nervous before leaving for Santiago, knowing that she would not see her family or visit home for five and a half long months.
"Essentially, I had an emotional breakdown in the airport in Chicago," said Alvarez.
Her adjustment worries had already been exacerbated by her program notifying her about the strikes before she left.
"The program itself wasn't too concerned about the strikes because the university I was going to, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, had supposedly never gone on strike before, but they did mention the violence that was accompanying some of the strikes at the time," Alvarez said.
During the initial strike period, when classes were temporarily on hold, Turner and Alvarez heeded their programs' advice and spent time at home, bonding with their host families.
"I got to know my host family really well, so I guess that's a plus of the situation," said Turner.
Although Alvarez and Turner enjoyed soaking up Chile outside of the classroom, inevitably it became apparent that academics, or the lack thereof, needed to be addressed.
Middlebury in Chile offered its students the option of going back to the United States once it became clear that the strikes would be continuing past the first three weeks of the semester.
Turner said, "They told us, 'Look, this is going to last longer than we thought, and since classes haven't fully gotten into gear, you are allowed to go home.' But everyone stayed."
IFSA Butler did not offer its students the option to return home, though, the program discussed the possibility of having students do independent studies in place of university classes.
Alvarez registered for two classes in Católica's sociology college, as well as two classes offered by IFSA Butler. While some colleges in the university never went on strike, her department was on strike for the first three weeks of classes as many liberal Chilean sociology students joined the efforts.
"University professors did hold class for exchange students after the first week of strikes," said Alvarez. "They told Chilean students that they had to keep up with the readings, even if they were not in class."
Professors from Turner's host university also offered special classes two weeks into the semester.
"While the Chilean students did not have class, the Americans did along with other exchange students from Germany, France and Spain," said Turner.
Even though she was not studying with Chilean students, Turner still learned the differences between American and Chilean perspectives on controversial topics like deforestation.
"I took a forestry class in Valdivia," said Turner. "A Bowdoin class on forestry would be very environmental and all about how to save the forest. In Chile, nope, it was about how do we grow and then cut down the forest to make as much money as we can."
Though both Alvarez and Turner agreed with the aim of the strikes, they expressed frustration with the lack of tangible results.
"The strikes created a forum for more discussion, but I think that's the only thing they achieved," Turner said. "Before there was an ignorance of what was going on in the universities, but now at least people are aware of the issues."
Neither Alvarez nor Turner has heard about strikes occurring this semester in Chile, but they expect that the discourse on education will continue indefinitely.
Despite their delayed semesters, Alvarez and Turner said the strikes did not affect the quality of their academic experiences. Both said their only regrets were not being able to spend as much time getting to know their Chilean classmates and peers.
"When we first got there, we couldn't meet Chileans because they were all marching in the streets," Turner said. "We were a little scared of getting involved in their political issues. Later on we became friends with more of them. It was a bummer not having class with Chileans, but I was impressed by how well my program was able to pull everything together."
The difficulties caused by the strikes did not put a dent in Alvarez's phenomenal semester abroad; in fact, she proclaimed that it beat her expectations.
"I'm not kidding, !" exclaimed Alvarez. "Chile surprised me as a country. It was so beautiful and had so much diversity. I loved coming home to my host family, and that made a world of difference. I totally romanticized the whole experience shamelessly."