Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso is home to a large population of international students. Their language professors are often the ones to support them in a new and overwhelming country.


When students arrive in their host country, the professor to student relationship can be radically different from how it is in the United States. In the case of Chile, many students have observed a certain closeness they find with their professors that they didn’t have before. Some professors even invite their students over for dinner, to expand the cultural experience they’re having outside of the classroom. One such professor is Dr. Sonia Toledo Azócar, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (PUCV) international program director. She gave me some insight into how she interacts with the many foreign students that have passed through her office over the years.

Azócar holds a doctorate in Hispanic philology and has taught language classes to foreigners and Chileans for around twenty years. Specifically, she specializes in teaching English, Chinese and Portuguese native speakers, but has also had students from all parts of the world. These experiences have given her an opportunity to get to know many different types of students, and try to have a successful class with students coming from so many different places.

“As I work with foreign students, it’s hard after a while to see their true essence in terms of creativity…At the start they are a little more timid, because of the language,” mentioned Azócar. She feels that expressing yourself as a student becomes much more difficult when you are speaking a second language, and trying to bring your true self out is almost impossible.

A different aspect that Azócar has noticed is that studying a language can be a much more invested and emotional experience than studying other subjects. Living in another country means you are encountered with many challenges and obstacles that have to do with language every day, so it is very common to look for guidance from your language teacher.

“It seems that when one learns a language, the other person has been so involved emotionally, more than if you’re learning a little about literature or any other class. Learning a language is like learning about the world. And it’s like opening, in one way, a window, and so the relationship between student and professor is closer and the link stays forever,” added Azócar.

At times students can feel closer to their language teachers because in a way they are being shown how to survive and thrive in the country they’re living in, using the language that is taught to them. Azócar continues to be in contact with many of the students from other countries that she’s taught, meanwhile doesn’t see many of her Chilean students again after their class has ended. Many foreign students see her office as a sanctuary and pass by to talk with her about something they’re wary about. Oftentimes Azócar will have tea available there and a candle burning, with a table where students can consult her on what they’re thinking about.

Another majorly noted difference from universities in the U.S. is that Chilean professors are not encouraged to hide their political opinions, and even think it’s necessary to include their beliefs as well as listen to how their students respond. “One time I met a professor from the United States, but who was Spanish, and the first thing he told his North American colleagues was that neutrality does not exist, and neither does objectivity, when you are in front of a problem. There are no objective or neutral things. And I think that as Chileans we have that really clearly figured out.”

Students from the U.S. arriving to Chile have been surprised to hear their professors speak their opinions so strongly on controversial issues, but have also found that it provides insight that they wouldn’t have had before in their class. Especially concerning issues related to Chilean politics and history, their professor’s views and experiences can make their class more engaging and real. Azócar continued on to say, “…we’ve had a dictatorship and we are a Catholic university, but one can still give their opinion strongly over topics of politics, abortion, gender, and other current problems”. Even in her language classes she incorporates political and creative material that allows her students to develop the ability to express themselves in another language. Ultimately, Azócar’s hopes to bring out the individuality in each student while they are expressing themselves in Spanish.