Skipping the American Center Abroad: Why I Chose to Immerse Myself in a Latin American University

Kelly Slatery is a Cognitive Science student at the University of Virginia and attended the IFSA-Butler Spanish Translation and Linguistics in Buenos Aires Program in Argentina in 2016. Kelly is an International Correspondent through the Work-to-Study program.

“Kelly, hello! My name is Bárbara and I’m studying at USAL Facultad de Lenguas Modernas (we are in the same facebook group). I just wanted you to know that I’m here whatever you need! (College issues/info about accommodation/places to visit, etc.) I hope you are fine and enjoying your time here in Argentina! Welcome!”

I got this message on Facebook after my first day of classes at USAL (Universidad de Salvador) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Apparently Bárbara was one of the girls I stopped in the hallway when I was trying to find the classroom for Introduction to Methods of Translation. As random as it was, that brief encounter and the friendship that has come from it exemplify all the reasons I wanted to go on this program: immersion in the culture, the language, and the life of Argentina.

Here in Buenos Aires, I have the chance to learn about Argentine culture not just by talking about it in a class or observing it from my own American lens, but by living in it.

Last summer, I studied abroad in Shanghai on a program through my school where I lived and took classes with other kids from my home university. This experience did wonders for my language development and introduced me to Chinese culture in a way no classroom conversation ever could—but I still spent most of my time with other Americans. Being surrounded by Americans meant constantly tending toward American culture… and speaking English, too. So with the intention of getting as rich and as eye opening of a cultural experience as possible, now on my second trip abroad I chose to live with a host family and direct enroll at a local university here in Buenos Aires.

And the benefits have been clear.

Perks of Taking Local Classes with Locals

Skipping the American Center Abroad: Why I Chose to Immerse Myself in a Latin American University

Being able to say, “Oh yeah, I take classes at USAL,” has not only proven to be the best conversation starter, but also a point of connection for me and any Argentinian I meet. Taking classes at a university in Buenos Aires makes me seem like any other 20-year-old Argentine—and more than that, it makes me feel like one, too! I’m taking classes in Spanish according to the educational expectations and values here in Argentina, getting student discounts at museums, and spending time with other students who actually live here. I’m getting a feel for Argentine universities’ class schedules, grading systems, teacher-student relationships, honor policies—and all just by getting through the day!

Last summer I took classes tailored toward me with people from similar backgrounds, so even though I was living in China, I was still living like an American. Here in Buenos Aires, I have the chance to learn about Argentine culture not just by talking about it in a class or observing it from my own American lens, but by living in it. And the friends I’ve made here have been key to making me feel like I’m living a true Argentine experience.

With my friends, I’ve been learning street language, appropriate responses in different situations, and even how to text like an Argentinian.

After I met Bárbara that first day of classes, I started practicing with the USAL women’s soccer team and one week later was getting coffee and going to MALBA with Sofía. And after my first Vocal Training: Popular Music class, I was added to the class WhatsApp group message, which immediately made me feel like part of the group—now one month later, Camila comments on all my Instagrams and Leann is accompanying me on the next song I’m performing for the class!

The friendships I’ve made here through my classes have enabled me to discuss feminism with people who grew up with very different backgrounds and have very different perspectives, as well as learn what the “typical” trajectory after high school is because I’ve met the people living it. Because of the immersive environment, I’m learning about more profound aspects of Argentine society and culture than what I would be able to glean from observation or classroom discussion alone. On top of that, spending more time with Argentinians also means, naturally, spending more time speaking Spanish.

The Difference Between Knowing Spanish and Speaking it

Skipping the American Center Abroad: Why I Chose to Immerse Myself in a Latin American University

As a Spanish Immersion kid, I’ve been taking Spanish since kindergarten, so my goal here is to learn how to speak not just with linguistic competence, but with cultural competence—and that’s impossible without immersion (seriously, I study linguistics, I know)! With my friends, I’ve been learning street language, appropriate responses in different situations, and even how to text like an Argentinian. Some of my friends will even tell me if I said something way too formally or if I could have used a better adjective—it’s been phenomenal practice.

University classes are another incredible resource for working on my Spanish skills. Professors don’t necessarily know that there’s an international student in the class, so they don’t slow down, over enunciate, or simplify their speech—but I still have to take notes, so I’m learning to keep up! I’ve also found myself in situations where I’ve had no other option than to use Spanish to effectively communicate really important logistical details, too, like when I met with an USAL advisor to enroll in classes or when I discussed discrepancies in a syllabus with a professor. But these moments of high-stakes practical use have made my confidence in my language abilities soar. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” they say, but I’ll gander to say it’s the father of learning a second language. When I need to find that stop for Colectivo 141 to get home in time for dinner or am desperately searching for any non-spray deodorant at the pharmacy, there’s no way around it—my Spanish just gets better.

I chose this program for maximum exposure to language, perspective, and challenges because I wanted to learn as much as possible from this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Now that classes are in full swing and I’ve gone grocery shopping more than a couple times, I can honestly say that I’m not just living in Argentina—I’m living like an Argentinian!

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