American newspapers consistently portray the student protests in Chile as negative. A recent article in The Daily Californian (“UC students abroad notice the impact of recent unrest,” Aug. 17, 2011) included the following comments from Berkeley student Bonnie Tung: “We would go to class, and there would be no class,” and “Some of us live in downtown (Santiago) and have had to stay at friends’ places to avoid the tear gas in that area.”

As an exchange student from UCSB in my second semester at a public university in Santiago, I view this as a wonderful and unique educational opportunity. Isn’t that the most important part of studying abroad — to experience a foreign culture? Otherwise, why not stay in the comfort zone of Santa Barbara, Davis or Berkeley? It is without doubt a historic time in Chilean history, and I am overjoyed to be lucky enough to witness it firsthand. I have been fortunate to learn more outside the classroom in Santiago than inside. Every Chilean — student, parent, professor or average citizen — is current on the student protests, whether they are in accordance with them or not. They give you a history lesson beginning with the pre-Pinochet era up to the present to explain the value Chileans have for democracy. They are an incredibly informed public, far more than the majority of Americans. Even sadder, the average Chilean probably knows more about American politics than half of the American public.

The complaints printed in the The Daily Cal article are not even accurate. I know I can speak for most of the “viejos” (year-long EAP Chile students in our second semester) who were around when the strikes started, when I say that there was definitely an adjustment period, but we have now come to accept it. Oh, those Chileans! While studying in a foreign place, you will be adjusting and adapting daily to the new culture around you. This is just one more adjustment that comes with the territory.

Is it possible to study abroad in Santiago? Absolutely. Even though the Chilean students are on strike, foreign students still have an obligation to go to class, as do the professors, who are not officially on strike. The majority of the faculty is still holding classes specifically for exchange students. While there definitely were — and still are — nuisances in trying to arrange semester schedules, the directors of EAP Chile and the international relations offices at the universities here are working diligently to ensure that everyone has enough credits and classes to meet their educational goals. They have added the option of research or special studies projects working with a Chilean professor to make up for classes that may have been cancelled.

And, compared to California, the class size can’t be beat. When was the last time all your classes contained just two to five students? We get to know our professors on a personal level and have more flexibility in the class. Open discussion is the norm, rather than lectures, making classes more interesting and creating an affable and supportive environment for those still learning to speak Spanish. I have really come to greatly appreciate these intimate seminars.

UC students could learn a lesson from the Chilean youth. UC tuition has risen more than 40 percent in the last three years. When I started college in Fall 2008, tuition averaged about $7126/year. According to UCLA’s Financial Aid Dept., it now costs $12,685 per year for in-state tuition for a public university. What happened to affordable education for everyone? Our public education system has tanked, just like Chile. Due to budget cuts, classes are being cancelled, majors and minors are being dropped and crashing over-enrolled classes is now a way of life for most UC students.

But the difference is that they are actually doing something about it. The student demonstrations continue to be all about providing an affordable (or free) quality education for every Chilean. So rather than complain about the annoyances caused by the protests, take advantage of this monumental time in Chilean history and live it! Take the inconveniences with a grain of salt.  Spend your time observing how students can democratically make a difference in improving the educational system that is letting them down. I’d say “Vale la pena” (“It is worth it”) to be here and experience history in the making!

Elena Allen is a fourth-year UCSB student studying in Santiago, Chile, through EAP.