Kayla Getter is a third-year A.B. Candidate in Social Studies at Harvard College, writing her thesis on how the 1994 Rwandan Genocide is taught in Rwandan secondary schools in a post-conflict and authoritarian regime. She has a passion for traveling, cycling and trying new foods!
By Kayla Getter
On Tuesday, February 25, 2020, I waited outside a seven-floor apartment building in Buenos Aires with two large suitcases, a sense of uncertainty and a nervous pit in my stomach. Staring at a nameless keypad unsure what to do, an older man stepped out from the shadows of the awning next door. Overthinking every word in my tenuous Spanish, I managed to stutter “I am... umm... looking for...” “Estela!” he exclaimed, finishing my sentence. Within seconds, I was ushered up to the seventh-floor apartment one. My new Argentine home.
I was excited to start my study abroad in Buenos Aires with the Consortium for Advanced Studies Abroad (CASA). I chose CASA-Buenos Aires for the very special makeup of the program, which facilitates direct-enrollment in local universities, program-led seminars featuring renowned Argentine scholars and support of a native program director. In addition to CASA-Buenos Aires Proseminar course, I ultimately decided to enroll in two courses at Torcuato Di Tella University, studying contemporary Argentine literature and cross-comparing global education and a Spanish language course through University of Buenos Aires, School of Philosophy and Humanities.
Within days of arriving, I soon found that Buenos Aires is a city filled with kindness. The culture is lively and generous. Neighbors invited me over for dinner after a short conversation in the elevator. Strangers stopped on the street to offer directions, always extremely patient with my Spanish. Amidst the hustle and bustle of this city of 15 million people, there are large green spaces to sit and picnic. The city is scattered with ice cream shops and home to truly the best parrilla—grilled meat— I have ever tasted (although I will never tell my southern Grandpa that!). I loved my time in Buenos Aires—my only wish is that it could have stayed longer.
Because of Covid-19, my program sent all students back to their respective homes only three weeks after the program had begun. I started orientation in late February, while friends from Italy and China had already been asked to return home. I was home before all my classes began.
I was so nervous to study abroad; I had so many questions: Will I get along with my host mom? Will I be able to understand Argentine Spanish? What classes should I enroll in? How will my body adjust to Argentine nightlife staying out until 5 a.m.? But the question that loomed over all of us with the growing pandemic throughout the world was: Will we, too, be sent home from Buenos Aires?
Anxiety raced through my body as I tried to remain present. I explored the Recoleta Cemetery, lounged in parks with red wine and friends, met local university students at bars in Palermo Soho and planned spontaneous weekend adventures to Patagonia and Cariló—a beach town four-hours from Buenos Aires. At the same time, I was trying to find out what information my friends studying in London, South Africa and Australia were receiving about the growing pandemic. It was a game of telephone, as rumors spread around the whole world about when and who would be sent home, yet no one knew for sure. The director of the Office of International Education (OIE) at Harvard did not know, parents did not know, program leaders did not know and, for sure, other college students did not know.
In Buenos Aires, Covid-19 was always discussed in reference to cases in Italy or China. Over dinners with my host mom, she repeatedly said “there is no reason to worry” because it wasn’t on anyone’s radar. No one was worrying about the safety of Argentine citizens, until the night of March 15th, when President Alberto Fernández announced the closing of the border and all schools. The next morning, my program held an emergency meeting requiring all students to return home within five days. It felt as if the severity of the situation escalated from zero to a hundred in a matter of days.
So, unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend five months studying abroad in Buenos Aires, but the time I did have was extremely special. I embarked on the adventure of studying abroad confident in my goals: I wanted to speak Spanish, immerse myself in a new Latin American culture and travel throughout Argentina. And the truth is, although my study abroad experience was condensed into three weeks, I am proud to say I accomplished my three goals.
I am most grateful for the genuine and loving relationship I formed with my host mother, Estela. Sharing a home with Estela, we quickly fell into a routine. Because our schedules were different, we never saw much of each other during the day, but every evening we came together for dinner and talked about everything while eating. I learned about Argentina’s free public healthcare system, how much her children loved UBA (University of Buenos Aires), her beliefs on neighboring countries' influx of immigration and how the economic crisis impacts her. We discussed our families, my friends and my worries about the future of the program, always with Estela patiently listening as I stumbled through my sentences. Our daily dinners not only fostered our relationship, but also created a comfortable space for me to practice Spanish. I had a one-on-one Spanish tutoring session every night, which significantly advanced my confidence and language skills. I definitely still hesitate when I speak and can’t quite roll my ‘r’s, but sitting down for a two-hour dinner conversation with my host mom every night exponentially improved my fluency. To this day, I still keep in touch with her via WhatsApp, and I know I always will have a Mamá Argentina.
CASA-Buenos Aires Proseminar class over zoom with speaker Juan Torbidoni, a literature professor at Catholic University in Argentina.
From a distance, I am currently enrolled in two courses at the Torcuato Di Tella University, a language course through UBA and my program’s seminar. Even though all my courses are conducted via Zoom, I’m appreciative of the opportunity to continue (virtually) immersing myself in Argentina My favorite course is “Education, Politics and Society” with Professor Mariano Narodowski, a past DRCLAS Visiting Fellow at Harvard and former Minister of Education of the City of Buenos Aires (2007-2009). The small seminar facilitates discussion and reflection, as we open every class checking in with one another. In addition, in my Spanish language class, made up of international students from France, Brazil and Israel, we constantly read Argentine news articles addressing Covid-19 and analyze our various countries’ response to the pandemic. Although it is not the immersion I imagined, it is still a community outside of Harvard. This semester I am still learning from and with an international group of students who challenge me to understand the world through a different lens.
Hiking in Patagonia with other students from CASA-Buenos Aires.
Lastly, I traveled a lot! Visiting the beautiful Iguazu Fall, a weekend beach trip to Cariló and the ultimate spur-of-the-moment four-day trip to Patagonia the weekend before we were told to return home. Argentina is a country full of diverse nature and climates, and if you are going to be asked to leave Argentina I highly recommend you receive that information overlooking the breath-taking mountains of Patagonia!
The whole world will forever be changed by Covid-19. I am so happy I was able to visit Argentina before quarantine because I had the privilege of taking part in spontaneous conversation, sharing food over late dinners and dancing until 5 a.m. I wanted to study abroad to learn from and with a new culture, and I continue to do just that virtually.
Covid-19 affects every single human being on this planet to various degrees. My story of leaving Argentina is a story of privilege. I was guided out of the country by Harvard which provided financial support for our emergency flights and Global Support Services (GSS), which constantly sent health updates of all the countries I traveled through to come home.
So many people in the world are stuck where they are: family members of those detained at the Mexico-United States border with their trials halted, prisoners who cannot be released regardless of the health situation, and people of color who are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and not receiving adequate assistance or support.
I do not say this to negate my feelings, my real feelings of being sad to have left Argentina. But rather to name how I have been impacted by Covid-19, while purposefully giving voice to others’ experiences as well.
I know that I will return to Argentina one-day, with my bucket list handy. Until then, I am grateful to be home and safe.