Wait, why are there men in my class?: Transitioning from St. Kate’s in Minnesota to UCA in Buenos Aires

As soon as I stepped inside the beautiful building of my new university, I knew that something was very different from St. Kate’s, but I could not quite place my finger on it. Upon running into a group of several guys while walking up the stairs, I knew immediately what it was. There are men on this campus- and a lot of them!

Along with the culture shock and all of the differences I have experienced and had to embrace here in Buenos Aires, I had to get used to the education system. Transitioning from a university of 5,075 women to a university of 18,000 was no easy feat; especially when there is no on-campus living and I have to take a bus for 30 minutes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to get there.

Surprisingly, none of the universities here have on-campus living, since most of them do not have campuses and are placed in buildings amongst the bustling city, easily accessible by public transportation. The private university I attend, Pontificia Universidad de Católica Argentina (UCA) is one of the only universities with a campus, where all of the buildings with the different majors are in one location.

In contrast, the world renowned public university, Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), which is free for citizens, has buildings all around the city, depending on your major. Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a British company that specializes in education and study abroad, ranked UCA 22 out of 300 schools total in their “Latin American University Rankings 2014,” in regard to their academics. UCA was also ranked third in all of the Catholic universities in Latin America.

All of the 80 people I came here with from my study abroad program, including me,  had two to three weeks of picking and trying out courses before we had to make a final selection of the courses we wanted to take and the courses we wanted to drop. This was great because we could see if we liked the teacher, the content and the homework before deciding which classes we wanted to take for credit. This is not the case with Argentines since they have a determined career path which lists all of the courses they have to take and when, so there is no freedom for them to choose.

My Argentine Foreign Policy class at UCA reminds me a lot of St. Kate’s because of the inclusive environment, great willingness of the professors to get to know and assist their students and the close-knit community. So far I love my course at UCA and I have been learning a lot of new vocabulary pertaining to the fields of political science, economics and history which has been challenging but very fun to learn.

Something that sets UCA apart from St. Kate’s is that there is a dress code, which does not allow women to wear skirts or dresses higher than the knee, any kind of shorts, shirts without sleeves, or sandals that expose their toes. Young men are not allowed to wear shorts of any kind or sandals that expose their toes.

Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on books here, the professors choose certain chapters of books to photocopy and then we go to the photocopy center at the school to have them printed for us, for a small fraction of the price. I’m not quite sure if this is legal but I guess the Argentines don’t really care and my wallet doesn’t mind it either!

Five of my classes meet once a week for three hours, and the class I’m taking at UCA is twice a week for one and a half hours each time. It’s been nice to relax before I have class due to significant free time in my academic schedule.

“The education here definitely took me by surprise. The classes and professors are much more laid back and disorganized. This has been one of the greatest adjustments for me personally here,” said Thomas Alvarez, a junior at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA, who is also on my study abroad program.

Some may be surprised to know, like I was, that professors that teach at a university here are not solely professors but professionals who work in the field that they teach in. For example, my Foreign Policy professor works for the Argentine Ministry of Defense. This means that our professors have a lot of firsthand experience and knowledge about the topics that they are teaching- that are not solely out of a text book. This also means that the hours of the classes are either very early in the morning (my class is at 7:45am) or late at night (9-11pm), to accommodate the professors’ professional work schedule.

Since coming here, I have been challenged to break out of my American bubble to enter into a larger, scarier realm of making friends with the locals. I’ve been trying not to get too comfortable with all of my American friends in the study abroad program, but it is difficult to venture into an uncertain world where the possibility of rejection is a fierce reality. It can feel like I’m back in high school, trying to make friends and understand the social hierarchies. Since I’m only taking one course at UCA (with Argentinians), and five at the international university (where all the American students take class) I knew that I had to branch out and be brave. As soon as I quieted my insecurities and got over my fear of saying the wrong thing in Spanish, I met some really cool people!

“Studying abroad has been challenging academically, but it has also really helped my language skills. I know that my Spanish has improved far more here than it would have if I stayed at my local university,” said Alvarez. I miss the organization and structure of St. Kate’s as an institution along with my friends, great professors, beautiful residence halls, accessible libraries (UCA’s library is closed on the weekends which makes it difficult to do homework), friendly staff, the plethora of activities, my lifeguarding job at the pool, and the work out center (there is not one here at my university), but I know that all of that will be waiting for me when I return home in July of 2015.

For now, I will have to accept the fact that I cannot wake up with five minutes to spare and wear a sweatshirt and sweatpants to class, as well as get used to having the male species sit next to me in my Argentine Foreign Policy class.

Elizabeth can be reached at earodewald@stkate.edu.

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