Classes at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

Hola a tod@s from Santiago, Chile!

I have now been taking classes at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile for the past month. It’s an awesome university, both similar to and different from Pitt. An important thing to know about La Católica is that it is a private university. In Chile, there is a major difference between private and public universities. Both can offer excellent educations but they function differently. Public universities are state-funded and that funding is invested in providing students with a very high quality education. Not much is left over for things like infrastructure. Public universities are very inexpensive to attend and students range across a broad spectrum of social classes (and ages, people who aren’t university students such as retirees also take classes there). Private universities are for profit, have more infrastructure, and resemble US universities somewhat more. The majority of students are upper class though some people from other social classes also attend through scholarships. Private universities frequently have a higher number of exchange students from the United States, Europe and other Latin American countries. I talk about this in so much detail because I think it’s very important for students studying abroad in Chile to understand the difference between public and private universities and to decide which one is a better fit for them based on the kind of experience they would like to have. I was torn about my own decision for a long time before applied, and while I am loving my time at La Católica, a part of me would still love to have gone to a public university.

The experience of taking classes with professors from another culture and aimed primarily at students from that culture is an interesting one. Just like in the US, professors will invoke contemporary events as a way of explaining the history or literature we are discussing – only, of course, they are contemporary events in Chile! This is actually a great way to learn more as I can look up the reference or ask my host family if I don’t understand it.
There have also been some moments of discomfort. I hadn’t realized it before but it is very different to have a conversation about US imperialism in Latin America in a classroom with other US students than it is in when I am one of the few people from the US and most other students are Latin American.
One of the biggest differences between how classes are taught at Pitt and how they are taught at La Católica is in the amount of writing assignments. The majority of my classes at Pitt, especially in the humanities, have a fairly large number of small writing assignments over the course of the semester. There are writing assignments in my classes at La Católica too but they are less frequent, and tend to be larger. I actually prefer this as it gives me more time to prepare for each assignment, and some weekends where I don’t have to write anything.
Another difference is that as far as I can tell multiple choice questions aren’t really a thing here. The exams that I am aware of are centered on written short answer questions. Like at Pitt, quite a number of classes in the humanities don’t have exams, only papers or other writing assignments.
The format of classes varies pretty broadly as it does as Pitt. Some are heavily discussion based, others are primarily lectures. Reading schedules can also be very different. One of my literature classes usually assigns hundreds of pages a week, often including an entire novel, but the idea is not for students to read everything on the syllabus but rather to choose some of the texts. (There are usually multiple texts which are options for each writing assignment.)
Another class I am taking does not have weekly readings but rather has end dates by which the student needs to have completed certain readings for an essay or workshop based on them.

Because of my time at La Católica, I’m in a position to give some advice to other study abroad students. One thing I recommend doing as soon as the syllabi for your courses become available is to look over them to see what the assignments are and what you will be graded on. This is important with classes that may look overwhelming, but are actually more manageable because you don’t have to do all the readings to get a good grade. That said, I urge students to attend classes even if they haven’t done the readings. It’s still a great opportunity to learn things.
Studying abroad isn’t just about learning in the classroom, it’s also about having cultural experiences and getting to know people. An important step towards doing that at a university is to avoid sitting next to other US students, and instead sit next to and interact with students from your host country whenever possible. Chileans tend to be shy, so it’s important to be proactive when getting to know people. Group projects are great opportunities for this reason, though like in the US, there’s the risk you’ll end up with some group members who are not particularly motivated.
I strongly recommend joining a class group chat if there is one. In my experience, these are typically on a platform called WhatsApp instead of on GroupMe like they are at Pitt.
La Católica, because of its large number of international students, also has a very good study abroad office. I personally haven’t used it but its reputation is very good.
Another thing I know from other people’s experience rather than my own is that certain carreras (roughly equivalent to majors) may be more difficult for US students to take classes in because they function differently from their US counterparts. Economics is heavily math-focussed in Chile while law classes almost all require an intimate knowledge of the Chilean legal system. I was also advised not to take four classes in either literature or history as these are often extremely reading intensive. I ended up doing just that but got lucky with the ones I chose and am also fascinated by the majority of what I’m reading. I think the explanation is that reading loads vary quite a bit within these departments (they tend to be larger in literature in my limited experience). There was one class I had originally wanted to take but there the load would have been too big for me, so I dropped it in favor of another one. It’s also important to know your limits.
Chilean Spanish sounds quite different from other ways of speaking Spanish and some Chileans speak very quickly. How well you understand the professor is also something to keep in mind when choosing classes during add/drop period.

There were a couple of adjustments I had to make because of studying at La Católica. One was being disciplined about when I got up in the morning. At Pitt, I could literally get out of bed ten minutes before a class and still be there on time. Here I get up about two hours before I need to be on campus to make myself breakfast, brush my teeth etc, and set off on my 45 minute subway commute to campus. This is also how I started using public transportation to do course readings.

Another adjustment I needed to make was to become flexible with my time management. Chilean university professors will sometimes change class schedules on very short notice, not only pushing due dates backward but also sometimes bringing them forward. While this has not happened to me yet, I am very aware that it is possibility, and consequently I make few longer term plans that I can’t change on short notice, e.g. I don’t travel longer distances within the country during the semester.

That’s all for now. Nos vemos!

Foto: The campus church. The Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile is a Catholic university. Students are not required to be religiously practicing however.

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