Let’s talk for a few minutes about the place that is, after all, the reason that I’m in Santiago. Looking back, I guess I expected that it would be mostly like US campuses I’ve visited, minus the extravagant building projects, but I didn’t give the question much thought. Given that lazy preconception, I was really surprised: the school and the students are qualitatively different from their US counterparts in several ways. USACH reminds me, in almost every aspect, of what I imagine (both from movies and from the fact that in the course of my fifteen years of education alone thus far I’ve watched dramatic changes in the level of technology available in the classroom) universities in the US must have been like twenty or thirty years ago. And I mean than in the most complimentary way possible. In fact, it really is a compliment.

Most of the classrooms (certainly in the Facultad de Humanidades, or FAHU; lack of funding for the humanities seems to be a universal problem) are un-air conditioned and un-heated. Some of them are not even fully enclosed. None of them (again, in the FAHU) have installed DLP projectors or computers or video screens or even overheads. No fancy lighting, no padded desk chairs, just the class and the teacher and the white board.

The campus is too open to be described as labyrinthine, but it is huge and certainly difficult to find your way around. None of the buildings with classrooms have names or are otherwise labeled, and there’s no rhyme or reason so far as I’ve seen to the numbering of classrooms. Damned if I can find anything without asking for help.

That being said, I also think it’s beautiful. As a result of being so spread out, there are courtyards and trees and grass everywhere; as a result of the lack of indoor seating (as well as, I’m convinced, the lack of wifi), there are groups of students at all hours of the day laying out in the grass, reading on benches, eating together in the courtyards, and the concentration of students into general areas by Facultad means that you start seeing familiar faces quickly. Even though I’m not necessarily a part of it yet, there’s a strong sense of community and belonging on campus. And did I mention it’s beautiful? The way the light hits north campus in the late afternoon, the sun filtering through the trees at noon, and on clear days, you can look up and see the cordillera of the Andes in the distance.

The students also seem different, in some ways. There are, for instance, a lot more awkward engineering types, with their long hair and punk band shirts looking straight out of the ‘80s. But that’s neither here nor there; more important is that the students are extremely welcoming, and always excited to talk to and help out the exchange students (much appreciated!).

A bit of history: USACH is the former Universidad Técnica del Estado (which in turn was the former Escuela de Artes y Oficios, founded 1849). As the name suggests, it was a state-run technical university established in 1947 principally for middle- and lower-income students to become engineers and assist in the national development project of import-substitution industrialisation. It became the Universidad de Santiago de Chile in 1981. The university retains its middle-to-lower class sensibilities to this day, which something that most students and professors take a lot of pride in; they will claim that where the upper-class U Cátolica and U de Chile population spends its time pretending to be European and denying the existence of the masses beneath them, USACH reflects the “real Chile” (in terms of culture and demographics) and provides opportunities to any number of lower-class and first-generation college students every year.

The former UT has a rich institutional culture (“Somos, somos los cachorros de la U, de la U-ni-ver-si-dad (Técnica!)” is the interminable soundtrack to the first few weeks of classes as the freshmen are marched through campus as a part of the initiation into their chosen majors) and a tradition of political involvement continuing to this day, which has left its mark on the university in multiple ways. Every Friday, without fail, there are multiple carretes (parties) inside the university grounds, which start around four o’clock and go ‘til the drinks run out; then, every Monday, I walk into my early-morning ayudantia and note the new political graffiti on the walls outside the classrooms. There are also bigger, more permanent murals, and no less than five leftist student organizations (all of which were out in the Escuela de Artes y Oficios recruiting heavily at the beginning of the semester). And the university campus is completely fenced in: the Matucana entrance is closed on Fridays (presumably to control access to the carretes), and there are guards not just at the entrances but also in the gardens! And by gardens I mean landscaping, which is most large patches of grass. But they don’t seem to do much, from what I’ve seen.

More to the point, at least once every two weeks or so, students are sent running for classrooms to wait inside as demonstrating students get into altercations with the Carabineros, resulting in arrests and the launching of tear gas. I’m not really sure why the tear gas is necessary (or allowed on campus! It’s clearly a health and safety hazard to all the other students who are just trying to go to class), or why the Carabineros seem to get called every time, but I’m equally unsure about the potential usefulness of some of these demonstrations. (Does it really make sense to protest rising metro prices inside the university and then get arrested/tear gassed by police there when clearly the more logical thing to do would be to protest directly at the Transantiago offices to people who could actually change the situation, for instance?)

Today is a little bit different. I’m sitting in my room right now writing this because classes in the FAHU have been canceled due to massive student protests (manifestaciones) near Metro Baquedano. They’re protesting the recent hikes in metro fares and the price of student passes, the lack of scholarships and financial assistance for students affected by the terremoto, and the lack of representation in the national higher education decision-making process.

I’m just glad to see that students have organized a peaceful protest that will hopefully be more effective than on-campus protests, which are mostly just disruptive and inconvenient without any positive results. The disruption and inconvenience of shutting down the Plaza Italia for a few hours (in conjunction with coordinated protests across the country) and making national news for it, though — that I can support as an example of effective activism. So, more power to them! I can’t participate in protests on pain of deportation, but it’s really refreshing to see this kind of involvement and personal investment of students in the state of their higher education in Chile.

Anyhow, that’s enough editorializing from me. I do still have lots of reading to do — off to work!


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