Study Abroad Column: Contrasting Claremont With Buenos Aires

Baking in the 28-degree Celsius late-spring heat of Buenos Aires, I daze off for a few minutes in my class on Crime and Society at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) as another spell of restless horn-honking ascends from the street below, through the desperately cracked windows, drowning out the professor’s voice.

Looking around, it is evident most of the students in the room have long stopped listening and are fanning themselves with notebook paper. I’m glad I got a desk again this week, because it must be especially miserable in this heat to be one of the students sitting cross-legged on the grimy floor. Like most of the desks in the room, though, mine is missing its flat table, leaving only a disconcerting metal hook to rest my papers on.

In a classroom such as this, typical of the broke Argentine government and the remnants of a radical student leftist tradition, it’s hard not to compare the surroundings with the everyday scenery at Pomona College.

Here, everyone has gotten used to the decrepit building, the peeling and graffiti-marred walls, the broken or nonexistent desks and the lack of heat or air conditioning. The students are accustomed to the old-school elevators, which have not been changed since the building was converted from a maternity hospital, and to the bathrooms that you dare not enter because the toilets haven’t worked in any stretch of recent memory.

I’ve made a few local friends at the university, which is supposed to be the most prestigious public one in the nation. I constantly wonder what they would think if they could peek into my everyday life at Pomona. My peers here can hardly picture a clean classroom where the professor and students arrive less than twenty minutes late, much less the idea of living on-site at college, a ten-minute walk across a grass field from the classrooms and all of the other extravagances of life on our campus.

I know I speak from a position of privilege in the United States, and from the role of an outsider in Buenos Aires, so take my observations for what they are: a conversation starter. But it has become ever more obvious to me as I attend my classes at the UBA how the Claremont schools are the embodiment of the Occupy movement’s ‘1 percent’ in the form of an institution of higher education. The truth is that our college experience goes so wildly beyond the once traditional vision of a college education (professors and students in classrooms) that it is barely recognizable as a college by that simple standard anymore. It looks and feels more like a summer camp or a resort. It doesn’t take coming all the way to an Argentine university to realize that, but seeing the decaying conditions and the deflated spirit of the best public university in one of the most economically important countries in the Americas certainly has helped drive the point home.

Seeing the lack of basic infrastructural necessities at UBA makes one reflect upon how much of a spectacle the growth of private U.S. universities has become. It’s practically an arms race to have the shiniest sports complex or student dormitories, to boast the lowest student-to-teacher ratio and to give students ice cream sundae bars and all kinds of other treats to ensure their complete and constant happiness.

True, it can become difficult to distinguish between advantages that enrich a student’s preparedness for the post-college world or fulfill necessities for student well-being from the frills that really are just frills. But these excesses, the useful and the frivolous, each in some small way make Pomona more inaccessible by driving tuition and fees through the roof. Despite our comparatively very strong financial aid, they make Pomona into an exclusive club, and not just because of the price tag.

The excess means that money isn’t being spent on making this education available to a greater number of people, and also directly or indirectly undercuts accessibility, though it certainly gets the college far in the national rankings for alumni happiness, teacher/student ratios and the like.

What’s become clear in recent decades is that the first-world measurement of the best colleges and universities is rippling farther and farther away from that basic starting point of students, professors and a classroom.

To a student coming from Pomona, it doesn’t seem like the students at UBA, whose education barely meets that aforementioned bare-bones standard, are getting a solid college education by today’s standards—they can’t even find a place to sit in the classroom, much less imagine the kinds of resources available at a place like Pomona. But then again, if the UBA students saw what my education—my life, rather—is like at Pomona, it wouldn’t seem like a real education to them either, because it goes so far above and beyond what is necessary to learn in the traditional sense, to the point where if you take a step back, it starts to look obscene.

I suppose that study abroad is often, among other things, an extraordinary lesson in the depth of inequalities—educational and otherwise. One semester, you’re at a private college where the actual academic instruction is no longer anywhere near the predominant aspect in a given student’s existence. The next, you’re at a public university where you’re lucky if you can find a working toilet for a bathroom break during a six-hour lecture. The disparity between the two is so enormous that it is almost hard to tell which one is further from accomplishing the basic function of higher education: instruction.