Study Abroad Santiago: Learning from the Women of Chile

Cafui Awasu ’20 knew she was going to spend a semester abroad in Santiago, Chile from her first week at Syracuse University. Right after she attended the Syracuse University Study Abroad Fair during Welcome Week with her parents, she made her decision. 

“I couldn’t even tell you anything about the other programs,” she shares, laughing.

But at the start of junior year, when Awasu would be applying to study abroad programs, her mindset was in a bit of a different place. The Santiago program is nearly six months long — if students choose to do the Ecuador immersion program as well, they leave for South America in January and are there until July. As a management and entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises double major, Awasu knew internships the summer after junior year were vital to securing post-graduation job offers, but most of them started in May or June. 

Awasu didn’t want to risk her career aspirations for a semester abroad and seriously considered making the switch to Madrid, Spain, where she would still be able to speak Spanish, a language she’d been learning since kindergarten. But Awasu knew going to Madrid would be the comfortable option for her, and studying abroad was supposed to be all about stepping outside your comfort zone. She’d already been to Europe and knew she’d be able to go again, but when would she get the chance to spend six months in South America?

That was all the convincing she needed. “I knew I was going to be challenging myself, but I think there’s also something really beautiful about that — it was such a huge stretch, but at the end of the day, I’m going to be a better person for it,” she says.  

(Awasu and friend from the Syracuse Santiago program sandboarding in the Atacama Desert in Chile.)

Awasu ended her time abroad a completely different person — more confident, aware of the world and with a stronger sense of self. And she wrapped up that summer with not one, but two internships — one completed while in Chile — and a solid lead on her honor’s thesis project.

Her thesis, for Syracuse University’s Renee Crown University Honors Program, focused on women micro-entrepreneurs in Santiago and how their experiences were shaped by Chile’s social, economic and political landscapes — including the 16 years they spent living under a dictatorship. 

She got her initial contacts for the thesis from Santiago’s Syracuse University Center Director, Mauricio Parades, who himself was a former political prisoner under the dictatorial regime. Awasu’s host mom was also an entrepreneur who, as a single mother, taught herself the basics of real estate and is now one of the top realtors in Santiago. But many of the other women she interviewed were those she met at markets or small stores. “I saw entrepreneurship in a whole new light,” Awasu shares.

She ended up sharing the stories of eight women in her thesis — not just their experiences as entrepreneurs, but also as Chilean women. Even though she’s an EEE major, Awasu never really planned on starting her own business. However, in the process of constructing this thesis, she realized that what she wants to do is help other entrepreneurs bring their stories and visions to life, whether that’s through advertising, consulting or strategy. 

“I’d love to be in a position where I could help empower women in emerging economies or developing communities to be able to tell their stories,” she says. She ended up sending parts of her thesis back to the entrepreneurs she interviewed, so they could use the material on their websites and blogs.

“I don’t know if I would have had the same experience abroad if I didn’t also have this side project I was working on,” Awasu shares. But as important as the thesis was to her time in Santiago, it didn’t define it. 

With the 12 other Syracuse University Santiago students, she spent four days in the driest desert in the world, the Atacama, sand surfing and walking along the crags of rock formations in a place that looks like it belongs on another planet. From her host mom, who she still talks to at least once a month, Awasu learned how to cook cazuela, a Chilean stew with chicken, squash, potatoes and corn. She spent weekends exploring the rest of Chile and made trips to Argentina and Uruguay. She immersed herself entirely in the unique Chilean culture, something which often isn’t covered in high school and college Spanish classes.

(Sunset at the Atacama Desert.)

The protests in Chile, on a small scale, began towards the end of Awasu’s semester abroad. They wouldn’t significantly worsen until the following semester, but there wasn’t a moment when Awasu felt unsafe. Instead, the protests made her even more aware of the resilience of the Chilean people and forced her to push herself out of familiar contexts.

It’s something her parents noticed as well. “She’s become more comfortable and confident with herself — self-assured in a sense and has developed a flexible attitude dealing with chaos and ambiguity,” says her mom, Carol Awasu G’92 (Falk) ’97 Ph.D. (Maxwell).

“When you go abroad, you just gain a perspective that allows you to think and react to the world differently,” Cafui adds. “To be able to understand things from a different point of view… I think that’s really valuable.”

Learn more about other Whitman student’s study abroad experiences.

(Awasu posing with a friend onto of Ingapirca in Ecuador.)
Sandhya Iyer