A Typical Day as a Service-Learning Participant in Chile

Ryan Birdwell is a student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is an ISA Featured Blogger. He participated in service-learning abroad with ISA Service-Learning in Valparaiso, Chile.

It goes without saying, but life in another country is going to be quite different. You can’t avoid it, and most likely you don’t want to avoid it if you’re reading this. Yet it can be a transformative interaction if you take the intentional, pensive effort to engage with your host culture.

This summer, I am participating on a service-learning program. A part of this experience is your placement with an organization to volunteer with, in my case, a Microenterprise NGO. You’ll spend a large chunk of your time at work, so it would help to have an idea of what the daily routine looks like in another country.

During my preparation to be a service-learning participant in Chile, I tried to study up on the history of the region and ask people what life is like there, but there was no real way of knowing what to expect. As a student just finishing up an 8-week Service-Learning program in Chile, I realized that perhaps my experience could be of some use.

I’d like to walk you through a usual day for a typical Service-learning student. I hope it helps you mentally prepare, and in the end encourages you to make the jump to participate in service-learning or intern abroad! Keep in mind that every situation is unique, so my experience will be different from yours… but ultimately, an important skill every study abroad student should come away with is learning to be flexible enough to adjust to sudden changes, because they will happen.

8:00 AM

A Chilean morning usually starts at about 8 or 9, depending on when you have work. On my first day at my host organization, I was able to choose the most appropriate and convenient hours when signing the contract, so I start at 10 am. I’ll usually get up and downstairs shortly after 9 am in time to eat breakfast and catch a Micro (small bus) from my Cerro (hilltop neighborhood region) to work. My mom would always prepare the night before a mug of hot chocolate mix with leche en polvo (powdered milk), along with a sandwich and some fruit.

My host mom faithfully prepared delicious food for me
The local transportation, “Micros”

10:00 AM

I get off the Micro near work in the downtown business district, and ring to be buzzed into our office building. My organization, Accion Emprendedora, works out of a refurbished old English-style building with vaulted ceilings and old wood floors. I absolutely love it. We have the chance to work with entrepreneurs to achieve their dreams and develop their enterprises, and this summer it was my role as a service-learning participant to teach them English.

After saying hi to everyone, I start setting up with the other participants in the nearby conference room, and get to work on preparing classes or entering data. My particular placement is a bit more relaxed with what you are supposed to work on, but you are expected to work hard and be available to talk with your coworkers. Sometimes I prepare a class while others work on inputting data, and the rest of the time I teach an English class with another service-learning participant. These classes are an amazing chance to engage and learn how to better communicate with others. I come up against a lot of challenges, yet have a lot of small victories such as talking at an appropriate speed and using both English and Spanish to help someone understand a new concept. These fun moments make all of the effort worth it, and the difficulties helped me grow professionally as a teacher and a linguist.

We had the opportunity to work with some amazing entrepreneurs!
We had the opportunity to work with some amazing entrepreneurs!

1:30 PM

Perhaps the most important and interactive part of the day is several hours later during lunch time. Around 1:30 or 2:00, we all get together in the kitchen to prepare our food and eat together. Our kitchen is fairly compact, so we have to cram close together on a small table; it makes for cozy and lively conversations. In Chile, friends will often share their food, and there is a strong culture of sharing and quality conversation. There isn’t a name for these meal times and the lively chats afterwards, but the formal word for them in Chile is sobremesas. These sobremesas (also practiced at home with your host family) make for incredibly fun times, where you also have the chance to improve your language/social skills at the same time.

It’s quite fascinating to me how Chilean traditions like this are so unique while as well as similar to social customs in other parts of the world; people from all parts of the earth enjoy time together with friends. For example, there’s the once, a Chilean adaptation of the early evening tea-time in Britain. In fact, Valparaiso and the rest of the country has a rich European immigration history, which you can spot today in the architecture, art, and cultural customs like the sobremesa and once.

Sobremesas are so fun!
Sobremesas are so fun!

4:00 PM

After lunch, I’ll typically work for a while longer until 4 or so, though the Chilean workday typically goes until 6 or 7 (except Fridays, which are shorter). Then I’ll make my way back home, through the crowded buses and trains of the evening taco (rush hour). Sometimes I go out for coffee after work or to simply walk the streets and see the city with some friends.

6:00 PM

Home or not, my host family has a casual once around 6/6:30, which consists of tea or coffee, some pan (bread) or a sandwich, and perhaps a dessert if you’re lucky. It’s another great time to chat with the family.

8:30 PM

The family typically goes about their ways for a few hours until they reconvene for la comida, or cena, which is probably the most important meal of the day. Chileans will often start this around 8:30 or 9. You talk about your day, and anything that happened, as well as sometimes what’s happening on the news. It’s an important time to participate as a member of the family and catch up with the others.

10:00 PM

By the time we finish supper, it’s around 10, and we all retire to bed for the evening, or go out with friends (though the Chilean nightlife doesn’t start until 2 am!).

My extended Chilean family.
My extended Chilean family.

This is basically a normal day in the life of a service-learning extranjero in Chile. As you can see, Chileans put a lot of stock in friends and family and showing that by spending time with them. As a result, time and timeliness takes a back seat to showing you value these people in your life. It’s a more relaxed pace of life. As part of my process as a foreigner in a country far away, I had to learn to adjust to this new lifestyle. Thus, as you can see, staying flexible is the key to transitioning into a life abroad.

I hope that this helps give you a peek into what a service-learning program may look like, and that it inspires you to take the risk and go abroad! You can take my word or the thousands of students who have tread the same path before me; it’s completely worth the sacrifice to get there.

The world awaits…discover it.


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