Picture me studying abroad

Monday, April 3, 2006

SCSU StudentsThe tears streamed down her cheeks.

Amanda Toppe, one of 17 students in the SCSU study-abroad program in Chile last fall, had reason to cry. Her camera was gone – apparently left behind during a bus stop in Puerto Montt on the first day of their field trip.

Her classmates were aghast. Nothing would be worse, they agreed, than to lose their cameras after nearly four months of non-stop snapping: pictures of the families they'd lived with, new friends, shared adventures, love interests, and stunning scenes ranging from volcanoes in the snow-capped Andes Mountains to seals in the Pacific Ocean, from the world's driest desert in the north to the foggy island of Chiloé in the south.

After the group returned to the earlier stop and retrieved the camera, junior social work and Spanish major Toppe, from Big Lake, happily smiled in the face of her friends' joshing. "You almost lost your boyfriends!" her classmates teased, referring to their earlier claims that Toppe was the troupe's chief man magnet. Truth be told, there were many handsome Chileans "in" the camera, but there were, as well, more than 750 other photos recording four months of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

"That camera went out with us at night," said junior history and Spanish major Erin Olson, from Willmar, afterwards as everyone laughed with Toppe about her scare. "So we all wanted it back."

Dana Claeys with an elementary school student in Chile.Freshman and mass communications major Rachel Medina, from Forest Lake, jotted the "you almost lost" remark in her "book of quotes," a log of the fascinating as well as the hilarious comments made by her classmates – many now her closest friends – since the group had first set off for Universidad de Concepción, Chile, with program director Professor Augustin Boyer. "That's another one for your book, Rachel," others would yell when a student said something quotable.

A favorite made its way into Medina's book early in the trip, when everyone was still having a bit of trouble with the language and relied heavily on a word that works as "excuse me." After one student said "Permiso" for the thousandth time, another snapped back, "You're permised!"

Studying abroad is one fascinating experience after another. While on a catamaran trip across Chile's largest lake, junior Dan Asquith, St. Cloud, spent an hour or more with a Chilean of Germanic background chatting, in Spanish, about the man's heritage. Nearby, students were teaching a non-English-speaking crew member a card game that he didn't know is called bull*"*", all of them roaring with laughter.

A group of five sat near Boyer – who never missed a teachable moment – as he shared intriguing bits of history on the 18th century Jesuit churches the group would see later in the trip.

Others were glued to the views: snow-capped volcanoes edging the icy lake, neat-as-a-pin farmsteads dotting green hillsides, sheets of mist covering, then unveiling still more wonderful sights just ahead.

On weekends, students' adventures might include a holiday celebration with their host families, a visit to Argentina, Bolivia or Peru, the Museo Galeria de la Historia, maybe the San Francisco-like Chilean city of Valparaiso, or even the formal Escuela de Grumetes Naval Ball that Toppe and sophomore Candace Leyk, from Sauk Rapids, attended as guests of new acquaintances serving in the Chilean military.

Mondays the group reunited in the classroom. "Monday's our favorite day," said Leyk. "That's when we share everyone else's adventures – you don't have time to do it all yourself!"

The students also extended their studies with field trips Boyer organized. To kill time on a long bus trip to a more southerly area of Chile, some slept, others told stories about their home-stay families, the boys compared their home-stay mothers' cooking skills, and up and down the aisle were students conjugating Spanish verbs in a wild, impromptu face-off.

When they stopped in a little town on the island of Chiloé (chi-low-AY), Boyer made note of some of the historical sites they might visit. But when students jumped off the bus, they headed straight downtown for food, where they spotted a "fruteria." Soon they were carrying bags and backpacks stuffed with green peppers, carrots, unfamiliar varieties of pears and apples, and "six kiwi and a Sprite for just a thousand pesos," about $2, all the healthy foods they'd learned to prefer.

In addition to good eating habits, the students learned to pay close attention to politics, always of interest in Latin American countries, and the news. "My family watches the news all of the time," said one. "And it's real news," chimed in sophomore Quinn Scarborough, Alexandria, who explained that it was not the frivolous coverage they were accustomed to in the States.

At the Universidad de Concepción, students carried a heavy load of 18 credits, all taught in Spanish. Coursework covered Hispanic literature, contemporary Latin American issues and more, as well as an independent study project, which gave students a chance to work on majors ranging from philosophy and music to business and social work.

As important as the classroom, said Leyk, was what the students discovered outside its doors. "I've learned a lot ... patience, coping, how to make friends out of strangers, getting along with people you didn't know before. Like I told my mom: 'This is a psychology class!'"

Taken together, the students' experiences in Chile – now delightfully documented in their photo albums – delivered on the promise made by the SCSU study-abroad program: "Enrich your life by discovering the world."

This story reflects some of the comments included in the dozens of enthusiastic responses from participants eager to reminisce about their transcendent coming-of-age experience at "The Castle." Although there is not room on these pages to include all of the stories and photos, all are published in their entirety at www.stcloudstate.edu/studyabroad/alumni.

- Marjorie Proell

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