Virtual Chile study abroad program provides eye-opening experience

Virtual Chile study abroad program provides eye-opening experience

D ue to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Brantley Nicholson’s 2020 summer study abroad students explored Chile virtually this year. Although they didn’t visit the country in person, participants immersed themselves in a thorough study of the Chilean culture and garnered significant insight from the experience.

The impact of the program was so strong that two students of this year’s online Chile study abroad program have already decided to register for the 2021 Chile study abroad offering. 

Savannah Taylor delivers her presentation on Chile.
Savannah Taylor delivers her presentation on Chile.

Because of this year’s online experience, junior Savannah Taylor, a Spanish and economics major, now aspires to work in Santiago, Chile, with its big business hub. For the first time, she was able to tie-in her studies of the Spanish language with economic concepts. 

“It really made it feel like my pairing of majors was finally paying off,” said Taylor.

She learned much about Chilean culture and Latin American history, putting them into the context of the country’s recent turmoil.

Taylor liked the freedom she had while doing her research for the class.

“Dr. Nicholson was extremely supportive of our various interests in the nuances of Chilean culture and history,” Taylor said. “This allowed us to pick an angle we could relate to, which helped tailor the issues. We could dive into them a little more closely, than if general topics had been assigned.”

Considering a large part of the in-country program would’ve been based around face-to-face research and interactions, the class instead delved deep into the literature, media and resources to regain those details through an online format. The flip side, however, of having an open-ended, independent class was the challenge for students to put a lot of extra thought and effort into their projects.

“This was a unique way to really push students to the limits of creativity and effort, which resulted in some fantastic research and business proposals,” Taylor said.

Typically, the three-week Chile study abroad program begins early May when students fly in. They spend that arrival Sunday getting to know their host families and start classes at the University of the Andes campus on Monday. While there, students also engage with Santiago academic and business leaders and take excursions, like mountain hiking and vineyard tours.

The components of this study abroad program also include students completing an internship to learn about the professional world or studying the Chilean culture. 

“There's something really cool that happens when you just tell students to ‘go learn’ instead of telling them how they should learn. I just let myself invest in what I was learning, and used other students' experiences with their research to help guide what I was doing, and that worked out well.” 
– Savannah Taylor

“Students can complete their minor in Chile, or the study abroad can act like a springboard to their major,” said Dr. Brantley Nicholson, associate professor of Spanish and Latin American Culture and coordinator of the Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies program. “Their Spanish improves,” he said, “because they live with their host families and make many friends. But, I think the biggest losses for students not being able to travel to Chile is doing the internship, which looks really good on a resume, and forming long-lasting friendships they would’ve made otherwise. There’s no way to replicate that through the online format.”

Although there wasn’t much time to plan to switch to an online format, Nicholson quickly restructured, so he could conduct Zoom sessions with students. With the support and assistance of the International Education Center, Nicholson and several other study abroad program directors made successful, rapid transitions to the online format. The great work of the faculty not only permitted students to retain the benefit of an exceptional international experience, but also allowed students to maintain academic progress towards their degrees.

“We did two things—one is for the culture class,” he said. “Instead of talking to the people who would’ve been there, I set fundamental questions that I wanted them to work through. I sent them suggested reading and documentaries to watch. Then, we got together and talked it through after that. This culminated in creative projects and papers.”

Instead of doing the internship, students set up a hypothetical company in Chile. 

Abagail Ralston is ready to apply what she's learned from the online Chile study abroad program to nursing.
Abagail Ralston is ready to apply what she's learned from the online Chile study abroad program to nursing.
 “They had to do research and a market analysis in Spanish,” Nicholson said. “That’s something they can put on a resume or talk about in a future job interview. It’s not the same as doing an actual internship, but I wanted them to come away with something tangible—a line item on their resume at least.” 

For senior nursing student Abagail Ralston, the Chile course exemplified the importance to the health care field of possessing intercultural competence. Viewing patients holistically and taking culture into consideration helps nurses provide the best possible care. Ralston will apply what she’s learned in her profession.

“Some may think that the Hispanic culture is largely one and the same, but from this course I gained an understanding of Chilean culture in greater depth and focus than I could have ever imagined,” she said. “Therefore, in my future career as a nurse, I will strive to continually be culturally competent by being inquisitive and accepting of all cultural backgrounds.”

The online study gave students a view of Chilean culture, while giving them academic freedom to explore through research.

“I enjoyed researching Chilean culture as it pertained to politics, economics, literature and professional life,” Ralston said. “Dr. Nicholson gave us creative freedom which allowed me to fully immerse myself into the culture as if I were actually in Chile.”

“There's something really cool that happens when you just tell students to ‘go learn’ instead of telling them how they should learn,” Taylor said. “I just let myself invest in what I was learning, and used other students' experiences with their research to help guide what I was doing, and that worked out well.” 

Although this year’s online study abroad was not what it otherwise would’ve been, Nicholson hopes students still came away with a better understanding of their Spanish vocabulary. Meanwhile, he’s planning the summer 2021 Chile program.

“I hope my students can study abroad next year, so they can stay with host families, make friends and do internships in person,” he said. “I also hope we can sponsor talks instead of reading academic articles, and do fun excursions, like hiking or eating at nice restaurants—really all of it.”