Study Abroad: Spain vs Latin America


Latin Power, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Latin Power, Buenos Aires, Argentina

For all of us with curiosity for the unknown and an interest in exploring the world, studying abroad is an integral part of our education. Choosing where we want to go can be an extremely difficult decision, and one that we make for very different reasons. Some of us are interested in learning a second language. Some are required to take a certain program or classes that are offered at specific location. Some of us may have a personal or family connection to our desired destination. Whatever the reason may be, deciding where to go abroad is the first major step we take towards this life-changing experience.

As North Americans learning Spanish, we have so many resources at our fingertips! Spanish is the second most spoken language in the United States and Latin Americans make up the largest minority group. There is a long list of incredible destinations waiting for those looking to improve their Spanish skills. However, according to Open Doors data on education abroad, Spain ranks within the top 5 of the most popular study abroad destinations for U.S. students in the world.

So just why do so many students, including yours truly, still choose to study in Spain over Latin America?

While there might not be a real answer to why people don’t choose to study in Latin America, there are certainly many reasons why people would choose to study in Spain, given that 53% of American students that went abroad between 2013 and 2014 studied in Europe (according to the 2015 Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange.) By planning strategically, traveling through Europe can be cheaper and easier than one might imagine. There are so many different countries to explore, each with their own language and culture. However, as international education grows and becomes more popular among students, we are realizing the benefits of studying abroad in what is now being referred to as “non-traditional locations,” such as Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia.

I studied abroad in Latin America for the first time as a graduate student after spending several years in Spain. I spent a summer semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the experience holds a very special place in my heart. It changed my own perspective about Latin America and showed me the many benefits of studying abroad there. I’ve thought long and hard about what Latin America has to offer and my own experiences that shaped my time abroad, and here are some of main reasons why I would encourage you to choose to explore this region.

1) US Contact with Latin America

There are roughly 55 million Latinos living in the U.S. and that number is expected to grow significantly over the next 30 years. There is a huge influence of these cultures across the country, whether it be Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Colombian, Venezuelan… etc. The dialects and cultures that we as Americans are most likely to come in contact with while living in the United States come from these Latin American countries, among many more. We will hear these dialects of Spanish in the news and on the streets. We may have celebrated the Day of the Dead, gone to a quinceañera, or smacked a piñata. Around the corner we may dig into a delicious taco, enjoy a mouth-watering arepa, or fix our sweet-tooth with some savory churros con chocolate. Whatever our personal experiences are with Latin American cultures, our contact is constant and ever-growing; therefore, it is very useful for future Spanish-language learners living in the U.S. to experience their time abroad in Latin America.

2) Plenty of places to see and travel

Wandering through the quaint, little town of Colonia, Uruguay.
Wandering through the quaint, little town of Colonia, Uruguay.

Many students going abroad flock to Europe with the desire to travel and experience other cultures. But, here’s a little known secret: you can travel and experience other cultures in Latin America too! (Crazy, I know). Central and South America cover a huge part of the Western Hemisphere and have an incredible variety of landscapes and climates. You can experience almost anything you could possibly be looking for: tropical rain forests in Colombia, beautiful beaches in Mexico, snowy mountains in Chile… bustling cities like Buenos Aires or rustic, country towns… from the Salt Flats of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia to the frozen frontier of Patagonia to the Aztec ruins of Mexico. Ecuador alone has 4 distinct regions, the Galapagos Islands, the Coastal Lowlands, the Andean Highlands and the Amazon Rainforest! Have I made my point yet?

3) Different cultures and dialects

Although Spanish is the most widely-spoken language across Central and South America, there is a vast array of native languages that are still spoken in Latin America today, and with these native languages come their own rich cultures, tradition, and histories. For example, in Paraguay, the official language includes not only Spanish, but also an indigenous language called Guaraní, spoken by almost 90% of the population, more than the percentage of those that speak Spanish! There are also many indigenous languages spoken in places like Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Colombia. Mexico alone has over 65! (Check out the Nahuatl language, which is spoken by nearly 2 million people.) Not to mention the many dialects of Spanish that are spoken within each country! Each place you visit has its own special qualities of language and culture worth exploring, so take advantage!

4) Gaining different perspectives

Enjoying the sun and some mate (Argentine tea) in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires.
Enjoying the sun and some mate (Argentine tea) in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires.

As United States citizens, we learn about Latin American history from our own point of view and are exposed to the many stereotypes of Hispanic cultures within our own society. Over the course of my time in Spain, I lived both with a family and also with Spanish roommates close to my age, exposing me to different perspectives of Spanish-American relations. From the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas to the kidnapping and torture of los desaparecidos in Argentina, every event in history has its own variation of the truth and its own interpretation of how these events have affected our present. My time in Argentina showed me how important it is to view history through a local’s eyes. It was an incredibly enriching experience and one that everyone should have, not only as a Spanish-speaker, but more importantly, as a global citizen.

I hope that my insight has been useful to those of you considering studying abroad and inspired you to explore all that Latin America has to offer! Let me be clear: I would never try to dissuade anyone from studying in Spain, for it certainly has its own wonders to behold. The most important thing is to find a program that is special for YOU, and the point of this blog is to encourage you to explore all of the options available to you in order to have a more unique and enriching experience.

JordanZillaheadshotAbout the Author: After spending a few years studying and working in Spain, Jordan Zilla recently returned to the U.S. and is pursuing a career in International Education. She is currently working at St. Mary’s College in Maryland in the Office of International Education. In addition to her love for travel, she is an avid reader, animal-lover, and self-proclaimed foodie.