Paul Dosh, Director
Latin American Studies majors are required to spend one semester on a Latin America study abroad program. This provides an outstanding opportunity to engage in international and intercultural learning and to promote understanding of self and others through contact with diverse cultures and languages.
The challenges and opportunities associated with study abroad are many and include the following:
- Study abroad calls upon students to use their Spanish or Portuguese language skills daily, resulting in dramatic improvement in all areas of competency, including grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation and speaking ability.
- Family home stays provide students with an interpretive lens through which to view a country’s culture and the relations between self and society. This window on daily life supports students as they engage the broader community.
- Study abroad academic programs, whether offered by a university or a private institute, complement on-campus offerings by exposing students to diverse teaching methodologies and new perspectives on their major course of study, as well as by providing opportunities for internships and independent projects tailored to students’ interest.
- The study abroad experience challenges students’ notion of themselves, their world view and their place in it. As a result of the engagement with bilingual and bicultural realities, students enrich their perception of themselves and their relationship to society.
CHOOSING A STUDY ABROAD PROGRAM
The primary resource for study abroad options and information is the International Center web page, which is continually updated. The following information is updated only occasionally and is intended to help LAS students navigate the large amount of information on the International Center site.
Issues to consider when narrowing your list of options:
1) All Latin American countries struggle with poverty, but there are major national-level differences between more affluent nations such as Chile, Argentina, and Costa Rica, and the region’s poorest countries, such as Nicaragua and Bolivia. Consider your own life experiences and exposure to socioeconomic differences and evaluate how this dimension of your study abroad choice will shape your experience.
2) Although some hybrid study programs exist, many programs follow one of two common study abroad models: direct enrollment versus learning community. The models have different attributes, which you may value differently—one student’s favorite element may be a downside for another student.
Participants in direct enrollment programs easily assemble a peer group of Latin Americans, their Spanish improves rapidly through intense immersion, and their routines and academic experiences often mirror those of university students in the host country. Aside from language skill improvement, however, Macalester students are sometimes disappointed in the academic component of such programs and find that local university professors have low expectations of students. IFSA-Butler programs use this approach.
By contrast, participants in learning community programs tend to have peer groups that are a mix of Latin Americans and foreigners. Participants have numerous experiences with a cohort of 10 to 20 fellow foreigners, including travel to sites around the host country. Academic experiences, though still not as challenging as Macalester coursework, are more often rich and fulfilling. SIT, HECUA, ACM, and the Border Studies programs use this approach.
These are generalizations, of course, but are worthwhile issues for you to consider as you evaluate programs.
3) How much independence is expected of participants? Many Macalester students love the HECUA-Quito program because of the very high level of autonomy and independence expected of students. But some students may feel adrift and in need of more structure in such an environment, so although this program is rightly a perennial favorite of Mac students, it is not for everyone.
4) Does the program include a significant credit-earning independent field study experience? Most programs do, but if you are considering a program that does not, check with your advisor about it, since it may not provide a good springboard for your senior capstone project. (LAS majors are not required to connect their capstones to their study abroad experience, but most do, so it’s a good idea to keep this option open).
TOP STUDY ABROAD PROGRAMS
There are three programs that have received numerous rave reviews from Macalester students: SIT Bolivia, SIT Nicaragua, and the Border Studies program. HECUA Quito and ACM Costa Rica have received nearly universal positive reviews and are also among the strongest options for Mac students.
Thus, if you are not sure where to begin your search, these five programs are a good starting point, but it is important to remember that with few exceptions, most programs approved by the International Center have been taken by at least one Macalester student who had the experience of a lifetime on it. Just because these are top programs doesn’t mean that one is automatically the optimal program for you.