Reflections on Growth: Mikayla in Chile

This post comes from Mikayla Walters from the University of South Alabama. Mikayla is a Chemical Engineering Major who interned abroad in Santiago, Chile.

Greetings from Mobile, Alabama!  I have now been back in the U.S. for a week and a half, so I have had plenty of time to reflect on my experience and gather my thoughts. It has been thought-provoking to compare my goals and expectations before leaving, my experiences in-country, and my reflections upon returning home.

When I started this journey, my first goal was to become fluent or very advanced in Spanish. Looking back, it was a little naïve of me to expect to become fluent in two months. Chileans use a lot of slang and don’t pronounce some letters, like final s’s; many people joke that they are speaking Chilean, not Spanish.  During the first few weeks I was very discouraged, as I could understand fairly well when someone was speaking more slowly, directly to me, but when it came to understanding friends speaking to each other, I was lost.  I felt somewhat left out around people my age because I couldn’t understand their casual conversations.  I also had difficulty with putting sentences together fluidly.  I noticed a change in this after three weeks, as I was able to speak with more ease.  At this point, however, casual conversations were still a huge challenge.  After six weeks, everything seemed to get easier.  At the start of the sixth week, I began working with two second-year students, teaching them how to perform some of the experiments I had already completed.  Teaching them, as well as talking to them over lunch, made a huge difference in my fluidity of speaking, and my understanding improved a lot as well.  At this point, I would not say I’m fluent, but my speaking level has definitely become more advanced.  Now at home, I want to seek out ways to keep up the level I have attained.

My second goal was to learn how Spanish is used in an academic laboratory and obtain my Spanish minor, and I certainly achieved this.  I learned the names of various pieces of equipment, chemicals, and processes.  What I found surprising is that scientific literature in Chile is published in English, and the names of many of the chemicals and products in the laboratory were in English.  This made life a little easier for me.  With regards to my minor, I wrote three essays about my work throughout the course of my time there.  This was a great exercise, as my Spanish professor is not a scientist, so I had to make my work understandable to a general audience.

My third goal was to gain street smarts and knowledge on how to travel.  I learned where to go alone and where to go with a group, and how the time of day factored into this.  I wore a money belt so that, even if my purse was nabbed, I would still have my cash and credit cards.  I learned how to stay alert in the streets and use my cell phone carefully at the proper times and places.  I made great strides in the Santiago public transportation system, learning how to take the metro and buses to get wherever I needed to be.  Brianna, another API intern, and I even took a weekend trip by ourselves to Viña del Mar, so we learned about the inter-city bus system and the Viña bus system as well.  With public transportation, I have moved from fear and apprehension to familiarity and confidence!

My fourth goal was to learn about Chilean culture, as almost everyone who travels wishes to do.  I experienced typical Chilean cuisine, from the meat-filled dough of empanadas to the heartiness of the soup cazuela.  I watched a fútbol game with my coworkers and witnessed firsthand the deep passion it provokes.  I went to museums and parks, and saw the strong family values of couples out with their children on Sunday afternoons.  I was invited into homes with a warm welcome and a kiss hello.  Doing all of these activities and making new friends was an enjoyable change of pace from my normal life.  Family is very important to me, and I spend much of my free time with my husband Brian, my parents, and my sisters.  When I was abroad, spending time with them was out of the question, so I had to make new friends.  I explored the city with fellow API interns, housemates, and co-workers.  At home, I’m perfectly content to stay inside and curl up with some popcorn and a movie.  Abroad, I really enjoyed expanding my horizons and getting out of the house more.  I realized how little I know about the culture of my own city, and now that I’m back in Mobile, I want to make it a point to go out with Brian and explore our city.  I also plan on being more intentional with reaching out to others and building friendships outside of my family circle.

Of course, coming out of your comfort zone is bound to come with some growing pains.  My greatest single challenge was my internship.  Since my degree is in chemical engineering, I didn’t know more than the basics in organic chemistry.   I needed a lot of help and I made a lot of mistakes in the laboratory, and this led to me feeling incompetent.  I didn’t want to disappoint my supervisor or fall below his expectations.  He and everyone else in the lab were very patient and reassuring, though; and, in the end, he was pleased with my performance and happy that I had gained new skills and confidence.  Another challenge was having a different routine of what and when to eat.  Breakfast had less protein than I am used to and dinner was served much later.  I tend to be a very regimented person when it comes to meals, so I had to learn patience and not be frustrated when things didn’t go my way.  I told myself that these are simply cultural differences I’m not used to, and I learned how to better adapt.  Not knowing a lot about my job and having a different routine, combined with the language barrier and being away from my family, left me feeling lost on a few occasions.  In those moments, I wanted to forget about everything new and come home right away to my familiar day-to-day life.  Ultimately, I knew this wasn’t the right thing to do.  I knew that if I came home, I would have nothing to do for the rest of the summer and be bored and that I would feel like a failure for giving up.  I knew I had to push through and make the most of the experience, and that personal growth is always uncomfortable.  Now, sitting on my couch and looking back over everything, I am so glad I didn’t give up.

All this being said, I’m excited to be back at my apartment with Brian.  We were already best friends, but after being apart I have a newfound appreciation for his company.  Everywhere I went, I thought of him and how he would love this dish, how he would be captivated by this view, how he would appreciate this work of art.  During the first half of my trip, I kept trying to find ways for him to come visit me halfway through because I couldn’t stand being away, but the cost of the plane ticket proved to be too much.  It ended up being for the best because he is in the ROTC and will become an Air Force officer when he graduates, so we need to be able to handle being apart for months at a time.  This experience of being in a foreign environment without my husband or family was very good for me, as I will need to call on the experience in the future.  But for the times when he is not deployed, I can’t wait for us to explore the world together and I now feel I have the skills needed to do so.

All in all, I had a wonderful time in Chile.  I learned a lot about this beautiful country and people, but most of all, I learned about myself.  I am now more independent, flexible, and understanding of other ways of life, and I am stronger because of it.

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