Written by Leah Heneveld
Early in the morning on the fourth of June, I landed in Santiago, Chile– marking the beginning of a deeply impactful summer in a country that quickly made a place in my heart. Over the course of eight weeks I made countless memories with new friends, improved my Spanish by leaps and bounds, and learned so much about the Chilean people and the impact of history on the country today. I spent most of my time at Escuela Amor de Dios in Cerrillos, where I worked with migrant and disabled children as a part of my social work internship.
It is important to understand Chile’s current and past economic situation in order to contextualize my experience in Santiago. Despite being considered one of the “most developed” and “stable” countries in Latin America, it also faces massive inequality and frequent protests over economic issues. Much of this can be attributed to the neoliberal social and economic model prescribed to the region by western powers over the course of the last century. In 2019, Chile was overtaken by mass demonstrations referred to as Estallido Social (social uprising) which were triggered by the raising of bus fares, but encompassed issues from lack of upward mobility to education inequality to inadequate pensions. In post-estallido Chile, these signals of inequality are still clearly visible– particularly in a large city like Santiago. For example, living on the northeast side of the city, I was considered to be in one of the wealthiest, cleanest, and most conservative areas. However, Escuela Amor de Dios was located in the southwest portion of the city, known by many wealthier Chileans as being unsafe, dirty, impoverished, and “suitable for migrants”. Although a not-insignificant number of these descriptors are stereotypes, they demonstrate the attitudes of Santiaguinos towards differing social classes, as well as the massive inequality that still exists. Within my hour-long commute to work each day, my surroundings changed drastically without my ever leaving the city.
Since I completed my internship in a government-funded school, I had a particularly close relationship with educational inequality in the city. Similarly to the United States, schools in areas like Cerrillos are not as well-resourced and, despite doing their absolute best, do not usually receive the support necessary to provide the same experience as a private school in a wealthy community of Santiago. These schools are often forced to go without state-of-the-art facilities, extracurricular activities, and special education services, which would make students’ experiences better, teachers’ jobs simpler, and draw more support. Much of my time at Escuela Amor de Dios was spent trying to fill these gaps pointed out by teachers through creating resources to support students and staff that would be flexible and remain relevant for some time to come. With Chile experiencing significant political change in 2022, many Santiaguinos tentatively hope that the educational system will soon be able to provide equal opportunities and sufficient accommodations to all students, regardless of where they live or their families’ socioeconomic status.
My time in Chile, particularly the time I spent at Escuela Amor de Dios, was an incredibly valuable educational experience that I will think back on for years to come. Learning more about the history of the country, including the impact of neoliberal and colonial ideas on its situation today, was a profound and personal demonstration of the theories I had been studying during my time at IU and has certainly given me a much more nuanced understanding of “development,” as well as the importance of non-western voices in these kinds of discussions. Moving forward I plan to continue pursuing social work as a career path, with a renewed passion for social justice and the inclusion of grassroots ideas to create a more equitable world for all.
Leah Heneveld received the Tobias Center for Innovation in International Development Internship Scholarship in the summer of 2023.