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On college

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Between two languages, there are always words that don’t translate well, often because the ideas are not equivalent in the two cultures.  When my Chilean colleagues/friends talk about “la u” (short for “la universidad“), they are referring to a single-subject, career-oriented, co-ed, urban, non-residential education.  In Chile, high school seniors take a test called the PSU (Prueba de Selección Universitaria, or University Selection Test).  This single test largely determines what colleges you can go to, and then you apply to a specific department, which is your future career: medicine, law, tourism, accounting, etc.  All your courses are dedicated to this field, and you commute to and from campus from where you live, likely with your parents, possibly in an apartment with friends.  This was the same story in Mexico, and France, and I gather just about everywhere in the world except the world’s great self-identified exception, the United States.

When people ask me here, “Que estudiaste?” (What did you study?), I have to explain that in the US, students have a “concentration” (i.e. major), but they also take lots of elective courses in different fields, so I had time to major in both Spanish and Government (though I always call it Political Science, even in English), as well as take courses in Education, Economics, and so on.  This means that with a few exceptions (such as B.S. in engineering, for example), an undergraduate degree doesn’t really qualify you for anything, except to go out and figure out what you really want to do– and then probably go back to school and get a Master’s or then some.  In contrast, Chileans (and the rest of the world) have to grow up fast.  I was recently chatting with a high school senior, and when I asked her about her plans for next year, she said, “I want to keep studying, I think architecture or journalism, but I’m not sure.”  My impulse was to say, “But you have time!  College is about self-discovery, exploration–” oh wait, you are in Chile, you have to decide what you want to be when you grow up when you are seventeen.

Meanwhile, here I am, twenty-two, and I still haven’t figured out what I want to be when I grow up, which sets me right on track by American standards (and yes, I realize that it is the relative affluence of my family that allows me to “explore”– and support myself– always knowing that I have a cushion to fall back on if need be).  I am doing something for a year (or more) without a concrete vision of how it will contribute to my future career.  Sure, I like teaching English– actually, I’m starting to think I really like teaching English– but I don’t think I want to be a teacher forever.  I know I want more Spanish, to spread my wings, to try living abroad, to get to know a town… and that’s why I’m here.  The fact that I don’t actually have a teaching license is often confusing to Chileans, especially when they gather how much experience I have and how serious I am about my current position.

In the end, I think most people here consider my situation a luxury, and they are right.  Sure, my fellow recent graduates and I have experienced plenty of panic over the last year– “Wait, what happens when I graduate?!  Why won’t anyone hire me?”– but in the end, I do think we are more fully developed for our liberal arts education.  My dabbling in various disciplines has given me a generous framework to fit new knowledge into.  Even though we haven’t “grown up” by picking a career, I do think our individualized, elective-laden education plans cultivated our initiative and responsibility.  Our college made us adults because it required decision-making, rather than reading from a script (even if we still don’t always feel like grown-ups!).

Even within the United States, not all colleges are like Smith, with no core requirements, a dozen small dining halls, four-year dorms called houses, and so on.  I am fully aware of the enormous privilege I had to attend this school, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop thinking of myself as a Smithie.  Those were a rich four years, and boy, did I squeeze out all the benefit I could.  And of course, one of the defining characteristics of Smith is that we are an all-women’s college (yes, I still use the present tense).  I translate that as “mi universidad era de puras mujeres“, and if you think that’s hard to explain/justify in the US (it is), it’s even harder here, as no one seems to have conceived of single-sex education outside of the Catholic chruch.  “No, it’s not about protecting girls from danger and distraction, it’s about empowering and developing women as leaders, as adults, as smart, confident, full human beings…”  This, too, doesn’t translate well.  And how do you explain that a big part of my college experience was a sport no one has heard of (crew), that some of my best friends in the pictures in my room look like boys, that for years I felt no desire to search off campus to date men?  At times, I simply opt not to explain, and when someone says, “Remember how much fun we had in la u?” I just nod along and think to myself, “You have no idea.”

Smith Crew uni under graduation robe

P.S. I have my a fire all by myself for two days in a row, and today it was warm and sunny enough that I didn’t even want a fire in the afternoon!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, April 5, 2011 8:35 pm

    Love this post. Love you. Miss you dearly. All our journeys to adulthood are circuitous but bound to end where they should. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself anyway.

  2. Amanda permalink
    Saturday, April 16, 2011 9:20 pm

    Ahhhhh, I loved reading this post… Seems like all of us Smithies wonder if we’re going the “right way” or doing the “right thing” or doing enough or just making the best use of our liberal arts degrees in general… Just wanted to say I hear you and you’re not alone. And you’re definitely on the right track 😉 Taking risks, being brave and bold, trusting your instincts – this is what we’ve learned and you are amazing for putting your passion and education to good use 🙂

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