I studied abroad in Santiago, Chile. Even though my experience had many ups and downs, studying abroad turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. My study abroad experience changed my life in numerous and indescribable ways.
One of the most important things that happened during my abroad experience was learning how instability has affected Chile and the lives of people I love. I learned a lot about current and past situations, and I have been deeply affected by the stories of others. I want everyone to know that secondary trauma is very real. Secondary trauma is when hearing about the traumatic experiences of others causes you to feel emotional stress. It’s okay to be deeply affected by the trauma and experiences of others because that means that you are opening up and connecting with people. My whole experience, especially hearing other peoples’ stories, was eye opening for me.
I am a white middle-class American, and I now have no doubt in my mind that I am among the luckiest and most privileged people in the world.
It was so strange to me to see how many Chileans have come to terms with their past. Chile, as you may or may not know, has a rocky past. Salvador Allende was the first ever democratically elected socialist president in the world in 1970. Then in 1973 a military junta overthrew the government, and General Augusto Pinochet took power. From 1973 to 1990, Pinochet led the country as a dictator. It was a time of powerful oppression, fear, torture, murder, and social and economic inequality. Thousands of people disappeared with no explanation, there were widespread violations of human rights and the population was paralyzed with fear.
Learning about the dictatorship, which ended in 1990, was a big part of my study abroad experience. It’s weird for me, and I think most of us Americans, to imagine such blatant violence and injustice committed by the government.
It also hit close to home for me because the dictatorship targeted mostly young people, college students and political activists, because these people were the biggest opposition and the biggest threat to the dictatorship. Now, of course, these young people have aged. But all of the adults I met and became close with (especially my host parents and the IFSA-Butler staff) were young during the dictatorship. Everyone had stories of people who disappeared without explanation, of torture centers right down the block, and of the fear they felt every day.
The dictatorship continues to have a huge impact on Chile as a country as well as Chilean lives. My host parents told me a lot about it. My host mom used to be a Pinochetista (a supporter of the dictatorship) because she was rich, she benefitted, and she didn’t know better. When my host mom met my host dad, he showed her the reality of the situation. People were disappearing, people were suffering and people were dying. She explained to me how he changed her life. He showed her the reality that was happening and the pain the majority of Chileans had to live with.
It was so hard for me to accept the fact that these people that I love deeply had to deal with this horrible atrocity.
I cannot imagine living every day completely powerless and with overwhelming fear. I also cannot imagine what the people who were actually targeted by the dictatorship went through – the fear, the torture, the abuse.
IFSA-Butler’s Resident Director, Isabel, taught us about the effects of the dictatorship as well. She told me about a friend she had while she was in school who just disappeared one day, the day after he marched in a political protest against the dictatorship. He was never heard from again.
She also took a handful of other students and I to an old torture center called Villa Grimaldi. It was in the middle of the city, and had been turned into a beautiful park and tribute to the victims of the dictatorship. We saw where people lived and the unimaginable living conditions. We saw where people were tortured, names of the known victims, and evidence of the crimes (including evidence of bodies that were in sacks weighted down by pieces of metal, that were flown out in a helicopter and dumped in the ocean). Visiting this place was the single most impactful experience of my semester abroad.
My experience abroad has changed my life and the way I see the world. I have learned through the stories of others how terrible and unjust the world can be. I still have a hard time accepting the fact that so many innocent people and people I love dearly had to live through this. Hearing their stories and hearing the pain and loss they felt truly moved me.
Knowing that so many people, including people who forever changed my life, went through that kind of pain and loss is something I may never be able to come to terms with. It has affected me and the way I see the world, namely exposing me to the reality that many people must face. Safety and stability are only in the lives of a lucky few. As an economics and international development student, my study abroad experience renewed my passion for international development. I am committed to bringing those aspects of safety and stability to the lives of all.
Secondary trauma, being strongly affected by the trauma and experiences of others, is very real. It has made me rethink my basic understandings of life to realize that not everyone is so lucky. I am deeply affected by the suffering of innocent people and my loved ones, and that, along with many other ramifications of the dictatorship, will continue to shape the way I see the world.
Sarah Hendrickson is an Economics student at Macalaster College and studied abroad through the IFSA-Butler Chilean Universities Program in Santiago, Chile in 2015.