The many enriching experiences of studying abroad

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For some, studying abroad is made meaningful through experiences outside the classroom.

For these two students, spending time in another nation helped them find their footing both in their identities and in their college careers.  

Dakota Brubaker — Cusco, Peru

At 19, Dakota Brubaker experienced a “rough freshman year” and faced doubts about whether or not he belonged at UC Berkeley. At the recommendation of an anthropology professor, Brubaker found himself in Cusco, Peru, during the summer after his first year at UC Berkeley.  

Little did Brubaker know that this initial experience would lead him to return two years later and travel to several other countries over the course of his undergraduate experience.   

Now a senior studying cognitive science, Brubaker said studying abroad gave him “new approaches on what academia can do.”  

During his time studying abroad, Brubaker conducted research on ancient Catholic and Incan practices. 

“The air was thin and cold,” he said, “Once you’re up in the Andes, part of the sacred valley, it’s clear skies every day.” 

He found himself following trails through the mountains for days, laughing with the Cusconian friends he made along the way, playing music and dancing.  

As part of his research with campus archaeologist Alexei Vranich, Brubaker attended despacho rituals and took notes on the significance of these ancient practices. As part of his ethnographic research, Brubaker broke down the significance of the objects traditionally used in the rituals. For this process, he interviewed members of the Catholic church, Andean doctors and government officials.  

The research focused on what are seen as shamanic practices, according to Brubaker. The objects, he said, represent a snapshot of ancient Incan and Andean spirituality.  

“There’s something that it taught me about learning how to listen,” Brubaker said. “There’s so much to learn from listening to other people. It takes you out, and it allows you to take in other people’s experiences.”  

Brubaker explained that in this context, spirituality incorporates aspects of European Catholicism and ancient practices native to the region. Brubaker said this tradition is “an interesting mesh of spiritual practices” and represents many of the Cusconians’ own ways of being Catholic. 

From learning about the traditional role of burying baby alpacas, associating the sun god with baby Jesus, and completing the San Pedro passage, to using computer programs, flying drones, and excavating — Brubaker said he had the “craziest study abroad experience.”  

“(The Cusconians have) kept so many traditions alive that were attempted to be stomped out,” Brubaker said. 

Elisabeth Earley — Santiago, Chile

Elisabeth Earley, a UC Berkeley alumna, described her time in Santiago, Chile. She spent six months at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, taking humanities classes and playing soccer in her free time.  

Earley said an important theme of her study abroad experience was expanding her knowledge of international relations between Chile and the United States. She said she got a firsthand view of the effects of American imperialism on Chilean society and had the chance to discuss politics with individuals across the political spectrum.  

“I think I learned more historical context than maybe I was expecting. … Coming from the country that came in and installed a dictator,” Earley said.  

She not only discussed politics with humanities students at the university but also with her host family, whose political opinions swung in the opposite direction. During her homestay, Earley said she talked politics with “conservative adults who supported the coup and were neoliberal in their thinking.”  

According to Earley, the political issues were more current than she had imagined. The host family she stayed with, for example, flourished during the dictatorship and as a result harbored “extreme” beliefs, Earley said.

“Because of (Chile’s) really close ties to the U.S., it’s particularly interesting to see what are the effects of Nixon putting a capitalist into power,” Earley said.  

On the opposite side of the political beliefs of her host family, Earley explained that Chile has a strong student protest culture. She learned a lot by witnessing the causes students took up, and one time she was even accidentally pepper-sprayed.  

She added that she often had meaningful conversations on the soccer field where she played on a team with local students.  

Politics aside, Earley explained that her study abroad experience made her more outgoing.  Standing out, she said, was “kind of useful.” She also explained that she got comfortable making mistakes while speaking and that it was “fine.”  

She also noticed a high level of curiosity toward Americans. Despite all the history, America is still highly valued in Chilean culture, Earley said. She noted that many American brands and items are popular in Chile. As an American, she became comfortable discussing the American government.  

“I almost wanted to be called out more. … What do you think about your government?” she said.

Contact Sasha Langholz at [email protected].