Not a universal university experience

As a non-native Spanish speaking student taking classes direct enrollment at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), one of Argentina’s most accredited public universities, I was well-aware that my experience would be very different from what I was used to at Georgetown. However, I have quickly learned that it is not just the challenge of the language that has made my semester here so rewarding thus far—it is also the unique, thought-provoking academic environment of the school itself that has encouraged me to think critically outside the perspective of my U.S. education.

UBA, with over 300,000 students, is the second largest university in Latin America—but thankfully it is divided into multiple schools located throughout the city. I am taking my two classes, La Construcción Social de la Memoria Colectiva (Social Construction of Collective Memory) and Capitalismo, Socialismo y la Revolución Social Contemporánea (Capitalism, Socialism, and Contemporary Social Revolution) at la Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, which is the University’s school of social sciences.

Even before entering the building, it is impossible to avoid the enthusiastic hordes of students aggressively passing out flyers—especially when it is time for elections. The activist spirit is also manifested in the vibrantly colored posters that span the length of every hallway, promoting a vast array of political causes from abortion to the rights of indigenous peoples to reforms to UBA itself. (Rosie the Riveter has even once made an appearance, which I was very excited about.) As both a student and a U.S. citizen, the signs condemning the neoimperialism of the yankis have by far been the most compelling because they have encouraged me to reconsider my country’s position of power in the international economic system as well as reflect on how non-Western nations view the foreign policy decisions of my own government.

The frustration portrayed in these signs, however, do not at all translate into the personal treatment I have received from my fellow Argentine students, and faculty, at the University. In fact, there has been nothing but patience and kindness, even despite my obvious accent. As early as the first day of class, I have been approached with the friendly inquiries of “¿De donde sos?” (Where are you from?), “¿Que es tu carrera?” (What is your major?), or “¿Por qué estudiás en Argentina?” (Why are you studying in Argentina?). I was even invited to share mate, the Argentine drink of choice that is publicly shared for all occasions, with a few of my classmates in my Monday morning class.  Passing the mate gourd back and forth across the aisles not only gave me the much-needed caffeine fix to start off my week, but it also made me feel like I was participating in an integral part of the University’s culture.

Unlike in the U.S., in Argentina the age range of public university students is much wider as there is not one single academic track that dictates how long it should take to achieve a degree. In my Memoria Colectiva class, for example, there is a dynamic mix of students from their early twenties to late sixties. Because we discusses the portrayal of pivotal political, economic, and social events throughout Argentina’s recent history in the course, it is fascinating to compare the commentary of those who are old enough to have lived through these events versus those who have only learned about them through the collective memory.

Another aspect I thoroughly appreciate and enjoy about UBA that diverges rather drastically from my prior education in the U.S. is the acceptance at the foundational level that the current political and economic world order is inherently flawed. The first day of my Capitalismo class, we spent the entire four hours of class learning Marxist economic theory—something that was most definitely not covered in my freshmen Microeconomics course—as well as discussing the various international financial crises that demonstrated the derrumbe, or collapse, of capitalism. (I also do not think I have ever seen a poster that read “Feliz cumpleaños Carlitos”  to commemorate Marx’s birthday anywhere at Georgetown as I have in the halls of UBA.) This change in perspective definitely challenged my assumptions about not just the functionality of the global systems under which we operate, and often fail to question, but also the moral consequences these systems have on the good of humanity.

I have to admit, my first few weeks as an UBA student were pretty stressful—it is intimidating to be the obviously flustered norteamericana who does not know which floor she needs to be on to get the photocopies of her readings for the following week… or who occasionally misses critical terminology that the professor utters just a tad too quickly. That being said, I have fully embraced this discomfort and instead view it as an opportunity for not just growth as a student, but also as a thinker in general. And who knows, maybe I will even have my own mate gourd by the end of this semester.

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