Student Blogs/Peter in Argentina

It has been a long time since my last post. On this occasion I would like to share my experiences of what it is like to be a foreign student at the “Universidad Católica Argentina” (UCA) in Buenos Aires. Time flies very quickly and sometimes it is hard to get all my thoughts in order for a blog post. With all that being said, the education system in Argentina is quite different than in Canada. The following findings will set the ground for consequent comparisons in my later blog posts.

Of the foremost importance are the classes and their structure. Apart from the regular classes designed for the regular argentine students, UCA has also a special set of courses that are designed specifically for the foreign students. The set of these courses is called “Programa de los Estudios Latinoamericanos” (PEL). Some of the courses in this course set focus on the history of Argentina, while others promote awareness among students of the current social issues concerning both Argentina and the rest of the Latin America.

These courses appear easier than the regular classes (at least for me) in terms of having better professor/coordinator/student communication channels and a lower level of academic difficulty. Besides that, it is quite convenient that all of the PEL classes run once per week as a three hour lecture (usually in the afternoon or evening). There is usually a 15 minute break somewhere in the middle of the lecture, but it usually becomes more like a half an hour spare time. It is a good opportunity to enjoy the nice weather and take a walk along the shore of the former dock canal in one of the newest and highly modernized neighbourhood of the city called “Puerto Madero”.

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I chose five classes for the first semester at UCA. Four of them are taught in Spanish (three PEL, one regular) and one PEL class is in English. It might be hard during the first three months or so language wise, but there is a long term benefit. Taking classes mostly in English also greatly reduces an already insufficient variety of business subjects. Some classes may have two professors teaching it, so that is something different from Canada. I think that this way the university can effectively utilize everyone’s professional potential and thus both professors complement each other in teaching. One thing that UCA takes seriously is attendance. Each and every course has a set number of classes and in order to get the credit one has to attend at least 75% of those classes. A funny thing is that you can come to the class twenty minutes before the end of the lecture and still receive and attendance mark. Not even once have I ever seen anyone get reprimanded for a late arrival.

In addition to the attendance requirements, students have to pass the “parcial” which stands for a test/midterm. You have to get at least a 4 out of 10 to pass, otherwise you are given a chance to do a “recuperatorio” which stands for a make-up test. One thing that defines tests at UCA is that you can neither say with confidence which things will be asked on the test nor the grades you will get. The fact that the test grades do not affect the final mark doesn’t help to increase the motivation to study. Also it is quite frustrating that after two weeks after the test in some classes you still have no idea which mark you got. When the marking is finally done, you get a chance to look at the test paper and take a photo but you must return it back to the professor. Another thing is that long answer sections tend to have no comments or marking signs so you would have to ask the professor what was right and what was wrong. Remember that virtually none the professors speak English, so it can be quite a challenge!

One thing I really like about UCA is that some of the classes it offers as part of a “PEL” program have a very applied and interactive approach to studies. For example, in one of my classes that focuses on the solidarity movement in Argentina, we had four fieldtrip classes over the course of a semester. During those trips, our class had a chance to visit a children’s shelter, an artisanal solidarity shop, a shelter for teenagers and the “villa miseria” which stands for a neighbourhood that consists of precarious living arrangements. It was nice to explore the reality of those that have less than what they need and acquire the knowledge outside of the classroom environment.

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One aspect of the student life in Argentina is the continuous demonstrations and nation-wide protests. They’re called “paro general” which stands for “general piquet” or “general stop”, when all of the public transportation stops and thus the education at UCA also takes a break, since students simply can’t arrive to the university. You can still come to the university if you live close but it is pretty much equivalent to time killing because no attendance is being taken and no course material is being discussed. Professors that were able to arrive on campus try their best to do something about nothing which in the end comes down to a very long small talk about one’s experiences on living in Argentina! On one hand, on the day of “paro” one can study and prepare better for the next week’s class. On the other, it is hard to study when the vast majority of the population takes a break.

Another thing I would consider detrimental to my study abroad academic objectives is the lack of clear written objectives. Sadly, it sometimes comes down to the very basics like paper outlines and project requirements. I understand that UCA is doing a good thing and saves our planet, but since the majority of apartments don’t have a printer, one not only has to pay for each single sheet at the photocopy places (keep in mind that the price per sheet is quite arbitrary at some places), but also risks of having the USB stick infected with viruses. Course outlines hardly specify how exactly assignments are going to evaluated and graded.  The virtual campus system is practically useless. I couldn’t log in to it, so after three months of not trying I finally was able to log in to see that there is nothing that I’ve missed during that period time. Not a single document like course outline or assignment was uploaded and some courses that I am taking are just not on the list. If anyone still complains about CULearn, I’ll regard it as the best system ever.

Class cancellations for the regular classes are also quite erratic. There were many occasions when a whole class woke up to come to the 7:45 a.m. class, waited there for 40 minutes to finally encounter some member of staff telling that the professor had a complication with the schedule and won’t come again so the next week we would have a different professor. Other times the explanation just wasn’t provided and people started leaving without any idea of what is going on. Also, UCA has not a single silent study space. Even in the library, the only silence one can get is a good music achieved with quality earplugs. I understand that sharing “màte” (argentine national drink) needs a good company, but the library is not the best place for this.

I do consider UCA a great place to study abroad for any Carleton student. All the difficulties simply require making some personal adjustments. The orientation week is very informative and the “UCA International” staff creates a great, welcoming atmosphere. The international student office tries its best to help and inform its student about the class cancellations in the “PEL” program classes. Professors are always ready to answer your questions in class, but unfortunately have no office hours. I have never seen a single teacher’s assistant here. The overall level of disorganization and a great abundance of things that would be considered unprofessional at Carleton make it had to achieve that same academic success at UCA. However, the university campus is very small and conveniently located in a safe and beautiful neighbourhood of Puerto Madero. There are so many great things about this place that it makes it hard for me to point out the things that aren’t so good.

Hope you’ve enjoyed reading some of my finding about UCA and studying in Argentina. Stay tuned for my next entry with more about “máte” which looks like a green tea but tastes very different.

Thursday, June 25, 2015 in , ,
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