Looking Back on Five Months in Chile

During my sophomore year at Arizona State University, I was busy adding research, organic chemistry, and clinical shadowing to my pre-med resume. The MCAT was on my mind, and I could see a personal statement beginning to loom in my near future. But what would I write about? What made me stand out from the thousands of other kids applying to medical school? And more pressingly: would I need a gap year to recover from all of the studying a medicinal biochemistry degree entails?  The stress weighed on me pretty heavily, but a trip to my academic advisor turned that all around.

I was ahead in my classes, and my advisor asked if I had ever considered adding on another major, or maybe even studying abroad. Wait wait wait. Did he just say that? If I studied abroad, I would get to explore a new city, culture, and way of life. Nevermind not having anything to write about for my personal statement–less than 3% of students in the United States study abroad– so I’d have a whole semester worth of adventure to write about that would surely help my application stand out. On top of that, who needs a gap year when the exploration and personal growth I was looking for came tucked conveniently into a semester of undergrad? This whole studying abroad thing was speaking my language–all I needed to do was say yes. And I did, to five months of adventure in Chile.

Las Dunas de Arena, Concón, Chile. My first weekend out of the city!! After a quick lil bus trip through Chilean wine country, we made it to Valparaíso (also known as little San Francisco.) Got to soak in lots of views and even play around in some random sand dunes in the middle of the city! Today, I also achieved full tourist/gringo mode. I cruised around in Chacos and shorts with my camera slung around my neck and probably laughed too loudly at people’s jokes all day and it was so fun and I’m not even ashamed. I’m learning something about Chilean culture, history, and lifestyle as each new day hits me, and I’ve decided that as long as I’m keeping an open mind to everything around me… It doesn’t matter so much that my blending in isn’t going so hot

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I have never experienced such a concentrated period of learning as the five months I spent there. In the classroom, I soaked up Spanish linguistics and Chilean history. I quickly found that the best form of studying for these classes was application to real life. To do so, I traveled to small towns untouched by western influence, got involved with the local photography and climbing communities, and welcomed the friendship of some alumni from la Escuela de Medicina UC de Chile (through whom I shadowed and interviewed three physicians in the Santiago area.) My lack of formal obligations while in Chile allowed me to pursue what truly motivates and inspires me: communities thrumming with compassion and fueled by generosity.

While in South America, each building, landscape, and person I encountered seemed to have an additional descriptor beyond those of our five senses. These encounters could be as vividly described by their smells or appearances as by their histories, and this struck me. It only intensified following discussions with local physicians, my host family, and other Chileans at my university about how much of Chile today is chiseled by the hands of its volatile political past. In the way college students protested in the streets, I saw Pinochet’s lingering influence on the education system; from the slums my morning commute would tangentially expose me to, I began to understand class stratification and the hopelessness felt by those in poverty’s unrelenting cycle; and in the uneven gait of an elderly Bolivian man, I wondered at the long-term effects of healthcare disparities in rural populations.

Parque Bustamante, Santiago, Chile. Now you’re probably asking yourself, “What the heck is Kev posting this picture for?? It’s not all that great and he’s not even in it!!” Well, allow me to curtail your curiosity. This is my little nod to Santiago, my saying “here’s to you, kid.” This is an ode to the communities that the city fosters.To the retired folks who sit under the endless canopy of young leaves on crisp jacket-weather afternoons. To the sleepy-eyed teens who come sit in the parks to listen to jazz swing bands and drink cheap wine. To the families who lounge on blankets and laugh at the cirlce of 20-somethings getting stoned before they head up to the dance floor. I’m such a fan of the dancing down here. It builds community and inspires confidence and breaks barriers and leaves everyone beaming and out of breath and full of life. And that’s the way I wanna live; just like that.

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Just as a medical history is essential for a doctor to understand a patient’s present condition so they may improve the patient’s future well-being, I believe that the history of a town and the culture of a community, no matter how small or far-removed from a metropolitan hub, deserves an ear that will listen to the stories of the past, and who is willing to use this history to prescribe a solution for the future of those people. I never would have gained this perspective if it wasn’t for this opportunity at ASU. Living in Chile changed me as a student, gave me the ability to speak another language, and opened my eyes to the struggles, victories, and everyday lives of those from other cultures. With all of this, I believe that I will become a more empathetic doctor for my patients and a stronger voice for underserved communities both locally and abroad.

The finale.

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Kevin McCawley studied abroad in Santiago, Chile in Fall 2016. To see more of his pictures from his time abroad, visit his Instagram @kev.jpg