Reflecting on our Chilean Experience

lona nalediWe (Lona Gqiza and Naledi Plaatjies), former Research Assistants at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) were recently awarded the AGCI Nelson Mandela Scholarship to pursue Master’s Degrees at the Universidad de Concepción, Chile. We arrived in Chile on the 11th of March 2016 to start intensive Spanish classes for six months. We will thereafter pursue our Master’s Degrees in Politics and Governance in August. This paper serves as a reflection of the experiences gained on foreign land thus far and cements the important role the Institute for Global Dialogue played.

Introduction
Chile is a country in South America located along the Pacific Ocean sharing borders with Bolivia, Peru and Argentina. In efforts to foster relations with other developing countries, the Chilean government offers Master’s (MA) bursaries for worthy students to study in Chile not only to achieve their admired qualifications but to also learn about the Chilean culture.

Chile has been invisible in African relations for years, despite similarities in its history. It was only in 1991 when an official South African embassy was opened in Chile (Santiago) when relations were strengthened. Bilateral relations between the two states were further strengthened when a Memorandum of Understanding concerning common issues of interest was signed in 1998. The first consultative policy meeting was held in Santiago in 2000, discussing issues of mutual interest and concern. Relations between the two states were further entrenched in 2014 when the Chilean President Michelle Bachelet Jeria was invited to deliver a speech at the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture at the University of Cape Town (UCT). It was during her speech when she announced that her government was working on a proposal to fund 50 students from South Africa, Mozambique and Angola to complete their Master’s degrees in Chile.

The proposal was approved in the same year and the first group of Nelson Mandela Scholars commenced their studies in August 2015. The scholarship is administered by the Chilean International Cooperation Agency (AGCI) targeting young professionals who want to complete their Master’s in their preferred fields in any accredited Government University in Chile. Master’s programs in Chile span over two years as in the case of South Africa, and before students begin with their post-graduate classes they receive 6 months of intensive Spanish classes as lectures are conducted in Spanish.

Arrival in Chile
Following three months of collecting documents and applying for the scholarship, we were on a plane set to land in Santiago. Upon our arrival we received a heartfelt warm welcome from the South African Ambassador H.E. Dr Hamilton Fisher and Political Counsellor Mvuyo Mhangwane who then hosted us for lunch at the embassy. At the lunch we were given critical advice on how to survive and continuously remember our purpose in Chile is not only to be students and serve our own purposes, but to also be ambassadors of our country.

Santiago is the capital city and as expected, there is a huge rush in a city that never sleeps. We spent five days in Santiago and had the pleasure to attend the annual South African braai day hosted by the Ambassador at his residence for all South Africans living in Chile. This gave us the opportunity to engage and form close friendships with fellow countrymen and women; important for those days when one misses home.

After our five days living in the capital city we relocated to the second biggest city in the country Concepción, where the main campus of our University is located. Concepcion is a five hours drive away from the capital city Santiago. Concepción is a student friendly city, with lower standards of living compared to Santiago. It is also the city with the most Universities in Chile.

The environment is conducive for us to adapt due to the fact that the city is surrounded by fellow students making it a bit easier to manoeuvre. Unlike in South Africa, Chilean Universities do not provide student residences, so one has to find their own accommodation close to campus. Contrary to what we have been accustomed to in our home country, renting is cheaper and apartments come fully furnished, inclusive of unlimited Wi-Fi.

The perks of studying abroad
Studying abroad is a challenging but mostly beneficial experience for students, and provides students a chance to absorb the culture of a new country. Additionally, being out of one’s comfort zone grants the opportunity for students to discover a whole lot more about their characters. It is imperative for students who want to further their studies to take every opportunity they receive whilst there is time.

It is important to note that when studying abroad it becomes easier for students to also travel to other countries situated around the host country, for instance since we are in Chile, we can travel to other Latin American countries requiring no travel visas.

The main objective of this journey is to experience different methods of education and return back to South Africa with a renowned and rounded educational experience. Education is the centrepiece of the AGCI Nelson Mandela program. The major draw that comes from studying in Chile is the chance to study a foreign language. We are currently doing Spanish classes which will help us understand the general basics of Spanish. This is important because Chile is a predominantly Spanish speaking country, therefore there is no other alternative but to learn Spanish. This comes as a blessing in disguise when all possibilities stemming from knowing a foreign language are observed.

The journey will help us return home with much needed experiences such as a new perspective on culture, education, language skills and the willingness to learn. These aspects will prove to be very attractive to employers and will assist greatly in pursuing career opportunities.

The fact that we are on our own in a foreign land will help us develop as individuals and make us more independent. The experience gives us the opportunity to discover ourselves while gaining an understanding of a different culture. There will be personal challenges that we will encounter and need to resolve on our own and those testing times will help us adapt to situations and obtain problem solving skills.

There is also an opportunity to make lifelong friends as we are exposed to other students from other countries that also came to Chile with the same mind-set and objectives as us. It is very possible to return back home having gained lifelong friends and gained much needed networking skills.

Adjusting to a foreign environment can be very difficult, especially when coming from a multilingual state where English dominates conversations between people of different races and cultures; to a Spanish speaking country where no one understands you can be frustrating. This frustration was dismissed when we were met by friendly Chileans who proved to be accommodative when communicating with non-Spanish speakers, thus greatly assisting us with learning the language. Through this assistance we found ourselves being able to greet and hold a decent conversation with no hesitation.

The Role the IGD played
Gratitude is due to the IGD and its staff members for assisting us with the application process and encouraging us to pursue this opportunity even when odds of receiving the scholarship seemed impossible to reach. This once in a life-time opportunity was formerly presented to us by Dr Philani Mthembu who serves as a Senior Researcher at IGD. During the presentation he mentioned the challenges of having to do Spanish classes and at the time we dismissed the opportunity as we believed the language barrier would negatively affect our educational outcomes.

A few months later, we had a meeting with the IGD Executive Director Dr. Siphamandla Zondi who encouraged us to apply for this scholarship programme. After the meeting we made an informed decision to collectively pursue the opportunity. The application process proved to be challenging but with the assistance of the Chilean Embassy based in Pretoria and the IGD, it became easier to apply. The IGD had advertised the opportunity on its website so the process of receiving full insight of the scholarship became easier. As the application process was proving to be difficult, the support and encouraging words from IGD staff members were key in helping us stay motivated and remain level-headed.

In all honesty, we do not believe we would have continued with the application process if it were not for the Institute for Global Dialogue and the organization’s selfless staff members. Under the leadership and mentorship of Dr. Siphamandla Zondi we have been exposed to numerous career advancement opportunities, attending high end seminars with Ambassadors from around the globe. Dr. Siphamandla Zondi became a father figure, who nurtured our career development in the academic sector, continuously motivating us to reach our full potential. Without Dr. Siphamandla Zondi and the IGD one would only wonder where we would be today. Much of our success is owed to the selflessness shown to us by the IGD staff.

Conclusion
The AGCI scholarship’s sole purpose is to expose Chile to the rest of the world, particularly countries falling under the global south. Through this scholarship students are exposed to the Chilean culture by being part of the society. Furthermore, it is a way of increasing global south developmental relations by funding students from states commonly distinguished as third world countries; ultimately these students will contribute back to the development of their home countries with the skills attained from Chilean Universities. Despite the challenge of learning a new language, we would like to encourage young South Africans to apply for such opportunities so that they can use the skills attained from a different country to help advance South Africa’s objectives.

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