Argentina sees slow revival of study abroad

Elizabeth Dunbar

Looted businesses, smashed windows, police-protester confrontations and other images of chaos were commonplace in international news about Argentina in December 2001.

Despite political unrest, two University juniors currently studying in Buenos Aires said they still wanted to come here.

These students might be evidence for what program coordinators say is a slow recuperation for study abroad programs in Argentina from dramatic drops in enrollment a year and a half ago.

Global studies student Adam Johnson, who is studying in the International Education for Students’ Buenos Aires program, said he did not know much about the Argentine crisis when he decided to study here.

Before leaving the United States four weeks ago, his dentist and some friends told him to be careful in Argentina, Johnson said.

“A lot of people warned me about it, I guess from things they had seen on TV or read,” he said.

Johnson said he has heard warnings about Argentina but so far has not felt threatened.

“I feel very safe here,” he said. “Buenos Aires is probably safer than New York.”

Sociology student Robert Cook, who is studying through Butler University’s Buenos Aires program, said the city is more vibrant than he expected.

Cook said he expected the city to be a ghost town, referring to images of closed businesses and banks he had seen during last year’s crisis.

“I was concerned there wouldn’t be any nightlife, but the city is definitely still here, and there’s plenty to do,” he said.

Twenty months ago

Almost a year and a half ago, program directors saw the number of students studying in Argentina decrease by more than half.

As Andrea Rizzotti watched her president resign amid a deep economic crisis that bred social and political turmoil, she scrambled to reply to the dozens of questions about the situation coming from students, parents and universities in the United States.

“We had to work really hard against the image of Argentina as an insecure and unstable place that had been circulating in the international media,” said Rizzotti, who works as associate director for the Council on International Educational Exchange’s Buenos Aires program.

But after several presidential resignations at the end of 2001 and dramatic currency devaluation at the beginning of 2002, Rizzotti received more e-mail messages with students’ cancellations. From December 2001 to February 2002, 42 of the 58 students in Rizzotti’s program decided not to come.

Mario Cantarini, director of Butler University’s program in Buenos Aires, said the media gave an alarming account of what was happening.

“It wasn’t a lie, but it was an exaggeration,” he said, adding that his program is back to a normal enrollment of 90 students.

Rizzotti said crises are difficult to understand outside a country’s particular social, economic and cultural context.

“This was certainly not the first time a crisis like this had occurred in Argentina,” she said. Argentines were not thinking about things in that way because they are used to living in periods of crisis, she said.

“December 2001 was not the worst we’ve had here,” Rizzotti said.

Both the Council on International Educational Exchange and International Education for Students contacted students during December 2001 and January 2002 and gave them the option to switch to programs in Chile, Spain and other countries.

Giving students an option to switch did not help enrollment numbers in Argentina, nor did it give students a positive image of the situation.

Allowing students to change locations was not necessary because foreigners were not at risk here during that time, Rizzotti said. With the exception of approximately four days of mayhem in December 2001, Buenos Aires is as safe as any other large city in the world, she said.

Rizzotti said the decline in enrollment showed that her office, the U.S. State Department and the Council on International Educational Exchange office had different understandings of what the Argentine crisis was.

After Argentine President Fernando de la Rua resigned in December 2001, the U.S. State Department issued a public announcement alerting travelers to potential inconveniences because of the turmoil.

Study centers stayed open, and universities and individual students had to decide whether going to Argentina was worth the risk.

However, at least one program run by New York University closed its site in Buenos Aires, Rizzotti said.

Study program coordinators said even before the country’s social crisis, students’ safety was a concern.

“During orientation we talk a lot about the large number of protests that occur here and tell students to avoid protests where anti-American propaganda is being used,” said Silvia Rodriguez, International Education for Students interim director.

Eleven of the approximately 40 students who had planned to study in La Plata, a city of 600,000 an hour away from the capital, arrived to study beginning in March 2002, Rodriguez said.

U.S. students can have a positive experience here, helping study abroad programs gain popularity, Rodriguez said.

Tourists are realizing the cultural opportunities found here, she said.

“The government’s stability and the positive reaction to our new president abroad bring more people here.”