Navigating a new academic system has been one of the biggest challenges while studying abroad. While I worried about getting around the city and packing the right kind of clothes, I thought school would be similar to the US (except for all of the classes would be in Spanish). After my first few weeks of class, I’ve experienced firsthand many of the differences between American and Argentine university education systems.
A Basic Breakdown of the Universities
Through the CIEE liberal arts program, students can take courses in the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), the Ponticifia Universidad Católica Argentina (UCA), and the Universidad Nacional de las Artes (UNA).
UBA is an internationally renowned public university. In Argentina, because public universities are free, they tend to be more competitive for admission and have better classes. UBA’s academic buildings are spread out throughout the city, so there is no central campus. Students at UBA come from all different age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds. UBA also has noticeably politically-minded students. Political flyers and graffiti cover the walls of hallways. Students and faculty also vote as a campus to elect deans and heads of different departments. I think this is a great system compared to the US because this allows students to have a direct say in who structures their education.
UCA is a Catholic school that feels more like Georgetown. It has a central campus in Puerto Madero, a newly developed upscale neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Students appear to come from wealthier families—most have newer iPhones than me. The campus also has much more modern facilities than UBA. It feels more similar to a US university. Because it has one main campus area, there are plenty of extra-curricular activities and more places to spend time on campus. The current president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, attended UCA.
Differences Compared to the US
The teaching styles and methods of learning at both schools are similar to the United States. The view of education, though, is extremely different. Public universities are free because higher education is considered a civil right. Rather than attending university because it feels obligatory after high school, students actively choose to further their education to expand their breadth of knowledge. Students select one carrera (major) and study that field in depth. There is a greater diversity in the age of students than in many US universities, so less pressure exists to finish a degree in a certain amount of time. Most university students work 20-30 hours a week while they are in school, so classes meet in the morning or later in the evening.
Most notably, because students do not live on campus, the campus culture is diluted compared to the US. Students spend more of their time studying or working throughout the city rather than with their peers at one central campus. Schoolwork does not appear to consume one’s life in an unhealthy, stressful way, as it often can feel in the US. When we live on campus next to our classrooms, we constantly see what our peers are doing. It creates a sense that we are not doing enough. “The library looks full…I should probably be there studying, too. They’re all going to that club meeting…I need to be more involved.” Instead, students do their homework and go to class, but also have lives outside of their college bubble.
- It can take 45 minutes on public transportation to get to class, since the academic buildings for these universities are located across the city. Sometimes the bus comes right away and other days it’s a 15 minute wait. On the bright side, taking the bus costs about 35 cents each way!
- Classes start when the professor arrives, and end when they leave. Professors come to class 20-30 minutes late or end class 30 minutes early, and nobody panics. Schedules and time are flexible.
- Many of the universities still have not completely transitioned to online platforms. To figure out where your class meets, they post a printed course catalog on the wall during the first day of class. Using this large, slightly confusing chart, you have to find your specific course and the matching classroom.
- Switching between Blackboard and Canvas to find course materials online at Georgetown is a breeze compared to finding classwork here. For some classes you have to go to a local photocopy store and buy the readings every week. Other classes have a shared Google Drive or Yahoo Group where all of the readings are posted. The professor usually quickly explains how to find the course information once at the first class, but it is rarely explained or listed anywhere else in the syllabus. Make friends in class who can help you understand where to find the readings and how the course works.
- There is a designated maté person in every friend group. This person brings maté (traditional tea) and a thermos of hot water to class. Students sip from the hot, bitter drink and pass it on to the next friend during class.