Engineering Abroad: Chile

One of the coolest ways to experience engineering is by studying abroad, as it provides the ability to learn new skills from around the world as well to experience different cultures. In fact, Georgia Tech offers many programs to study abroad in every major, and for Jacqueline Larouche, a search on the Office of International Education website turned up an exchange program at a school with a biomedical engineering program, the Universidad de Concepción.

Jacqueline attended the Universidad de Concepción last spring, where she took biomechanics, systems physiology, physics 2, and statics – all of which transferred over, credit-wise. For Jacqueline, the biggest differences to doing an exchange program rather than a faculty-led one, such as Galway, are the language barriers and class structures. Imagine, for example, studying an already-difficult subject such as systems physiology, but in a different language! Thankfully, all the professors and Jacqueline’s fellow students were more than willing to help her when she did not understand something.

The other primary difference, class structure, arose as a result of variations in curriculums. Even within the United States, the same course can be taught differently depending on the college yet include the same general concepts, and for Jacqueline, systems physiology was taught by six or seven teachers at the Universidad de Concepción, each covering a different body system. The statics course she took was also more comparable to BMED 3400 (Introduction to Biomechanics) at Georgia Tech except with the addition of some applied physiology, while her biomechanics course was based more on anatomy and investigated material properties of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. In addition to curriculum differences, Jacqueline found that the grading scale was quite distinctive from Georgia Tech’s in that the concept of A’s does not really exist there. Even if a student has the highest grade in the class, as Jacqueline did for one of hers, chances are that said student will end up with a B, and that a large majority of the class will fail. However, funnily enough, something that does seem to be common between both Georgia Tech and the Universidad de Concepción is the amount of group work in the curriculum, which ultimately provided a welcome sense of continuity in an environment where a lot of other factors varied.

Outside the classroom, while in Chile, Jacqueline lived in a “pensión” – the Hispanic version of a hostel – with two professors and two exchange students from Germany. While a little awkward, this arrangement was a unique way to really get to know the faculty and branch out in making global friendships. With her new friends, Jacqueline traveled all over Chile on the weekends, hiking the Parque Tricahue and walking through the Aracama desert, the driest in the world. On these travels, she was able to try some Chilean food but was unfortunately limited due to her vegetarian diet, as many main dishes would highlight the “slabs of meat in the center of the plate.” To prove her point, Jacqueline detailed a common and famous dish named bistec a la probre, which includes french fries, steak, and a fried egg. Jacqueline did, however, enjoy the avocados and fruits there, and mostly cooked for herself.

Another one of the interesting cultural idiosyncrasies that Jacqueline encountered on this exchange was the school’s “hazing” policy. At the Universidad de Concepción, all freshmen are welcomed by being assigned in pairs, and then having to cut each other’s clothes with scissors and fling mud at the other. After all the students finish, the muddy freshmen, complete with tattered clothes, have to run around town and beg for money! Also, because Chile and especially the Universidad are so liberal and politically active, Jacqueline’s town was often involved in marches, causing classes to suddenly become cancelled due to blocked streets. In fact, during final exam seasons, all the students went on strike and collectively agreed not to take the tests, which ended up delaying finals from the first week in July to the second week of August. Jacqueline, though, had to take hers early so she that would not miss her flight back home.

The biggest thing Jacqueline says she has learned is to be more open to cultural change. In her own words, “as an American, you have all these cultural ideas that you don’t realize you have…until you go into another culture and judge them because you’re not used to their cultural ideas.” Culture shock was definitely something that she struggled with, but thanks to the help of the amazing people she met there, Jacqueline was able to develop not only her BME but also life skills through an unforgettable adventure.