Pelton will be a senior this year at Drake, majoring in international relations, Spanish, and Latin American studies. She spent the past year, from September until July, in Chile.
Erin Pelton at the Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile.
For the first semester of her stay, Pelton attended the School for International Training in Valparaiso. She studied in the coastal city for seven weeks with 26 American students.
This was hands-on learning. For four hours in the morning, Pelton studied Spanish. In the afternoons, she listened to lectures on topics concerning Chile: the economy, politics, history, and women's issues.
During the last part of that first semester, the group split into two. One group went north to live with Aymaran families and Pelton's group went to the south to live with Mupuche families. The Aymaran and Mupuche people are the two largest groups indigenous to Chile.
The students spent three weeks studying the history and rights of these indigenous people.
Pelton stayed with a family in Temuco. "They were so wonderful," she said. "I feel like I had the best family in all of Chile."
Next, she was involved in a village study. The students were required to find their own lodging and sources of information.
Pelton lived in a village on an island called Chiloe. For one week, she used primary sources to find out about the history and culture of the area.
During the next month, the students researched their own chosen topics. Although they were connected with an advisor, students could travel anywhere in Chile during this time. They had to find their own lodging and sources of information, and present their research at the end of the month.
Pelton researched the way that high schools currently teach Chilean history between the years of 1970-1990. This time period is significant because a dictatorship, led by Augusto Pinochet, was in control of the country at that time.
Pelton went back to Temuco to stay with her host family there while compiling information. She chose this area because of its conservative values and its tendency to lean more favorably towards the dictatorship.
"I believe that how things are taught at a young age affect how they are perceived in the future," said Pelton, of her interest in the topic.
What she found was that the majority of schools do not teach that time period at all. Pelton views this as a negative thing, because, in her opinion, it means the issue has not been reconciled.
Once the research was complete in December, most of the students returned to the United States, while Pelton stayed on to continue her studies.
First, though, she spent time traveling. She went to Patagonia, at the southern tip of Chile, and to Torres del Paine National Park. She also traveled to Peru to see Machu Picchu, the mountain ruins of a center of Incan civilization.
For one month, she did an internship at the National Women's Service. She did more research, this time on topics concerning women, such as domestic abuse.
The final part of her experience was a semester of study in Santiago, the capitol. Pelton described this as a more traditional study abroad program. She took three political science classes and one art course at two respected universities.
Though she experienced much during her year in Chile, Pelton says that the biggest thing she got out of it was improved Spanish skills. She had taken two years of grammar previous to her Chile travels, but was not fluent in her speech. By the end of her stay, however, she felt like she could fully understand conversations, newspapers, and television.
"There were times when I got discouraged," said Pelton. "After two months, I just wanted to speak English, but during my family stay, it started to really click. By the time I got to Santiago, I was doing pretty well."
Pelton will graduate from Drake next spring. After that, she plans to look into graduate schools and apply for research grants. In the end, she hopes to become a college professor in Latin American history or politics.
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