La gringa en Chile: Student studies abroad

While many Gannon University students returned home for the summer, Katelyn Przybyszewski found a second home 5,000 miles away in Valparaíso, Chile – “Valpo” for short.

Przybyszewski, a senior physician assistant major and an Erie native, spent 13 weeks in Valpo, a port city famous for its 45 cerros (hills) full of colorful houses.

She said she was inspired to study abroad while volunteering at the Neighborhood Art House, a ministry of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie that provides visual, literary and performing art classes to at-risk children of the community.

There she met Sylvina, an 11-year-old girl who was uprooted from Mexico last year. As she tutored Sylvina, Przybyszewski reviewed her Spanish and realized that she desired to learn more.

“I wanted to follow through with study abroad because I have such an interest in cultures,” she said. “I wanted to become more proficient in the language.”

After researching her options and talking to Gannon’s study abroad coordinator at the time, Przybyszewski chose to spend her summer in Chile.

Przybyszewski lived with three different families. She stayed her first four weeks in Viña del Mar, a city eight miles north of Valpo. Due to her host mother’s increasingly hectic work schedule, Przybyszewski moved in with a family in Valpo, where she lived for six weeks. She stayed with a Chilean friend’s family for three weeks after classes ended.

Przybyszewski said she knew minimal Spanish upon her arrival in Chile and struggled to keep up with fast-paced conversations and Chilenismos, or slang expressions.

“At first, I didn’t understand a word my host mom was saying to me,” she said. “But I noticed that the language barrier slowly started to disappear once I got past the first five weeks.”

Rather than surround herself with other students from the U.S., Przybyszewski said she purposely formed close friendships with Chileans, who affectionately called her “la gringa” – a term used to describe a foreigner, usually from an English-speaking country. In doing so, she picked up Spanish much more quickly than she would have otherwise.

Her Spanish was supplemented by schoolwork. Przybyszewski studied at Pontifica Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. She participated in two five-week sessions, taking classes in grammar, culture, history and literature. She earned 12 credits and ultimately completed her Spanish minor.

When she wasn’t hitting the books or relaxing with her host families, Przybyszewski danced at discotecas, explored sand dunes, soaked in hot springs, climbed mountains and admired the many wall murals scattered across Valpo’s cerros.

Her favorite place, she said, was undoubtedly the Atacama Desert.

“It’s gorgeous,” she said. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before in my life.”

The desert – known as the driest in the world – spans Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, covering 600 miles on the Pacific coast.

“Normally when you think of a desert, you think of desolation,” she said.

However, she saw firsthand that Atacama boasts mountains, salt flats, lagoons and a rich variety of flora.

Przybyszewski’s trip to Atacama was especially significant because she went solo, forcing her to plan and solve problems on her own.

“It was a big leap in independence,” she said.

As her independence blossomed, so did her Spanish comprehension. Although she still wouldn’t call herself fluent, Przybyszewski said she can now converse for hours.

“It was only for three months,” she said. “But for those three months I took so much advantage of it.

“In my opinion I learned way more than the average gringo does.”

She said she hopes to use her language skills in her career as a physician assistant, either with the growing Hispanic population in the U.S. or in South America. In the meantime, she will be able to more easily connect with Sylvina and other Spanish-speaking children at the Neighborhood Art House.

Przybyszewski said she longs for the colorful houses, funiculars, stray dogs and stunning views she became accustomed to. Most of all, though, she said she misses her Chilean friends.

“The hardest part is leaving behind the people that I met,” she said. “Without the people, a place is just a place.”

She said she hopes to go back to Chile during the three weeks between the end of the semester in May and the beginning of physician assistant summer school.

“I know it’s not a very long time,” she said, “but I’m at the point where I would give anything to be there.”

She even started a fund – a “Katelyn Wants to Go Back to Chile” jar – where she saves spare cash for a return trip.

Her advice for students considering a similar adventure: “Do not let money deter you.”

Scholarships and loans are certainly worth looking into, she said.

Przybyszewski was a recipient of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, which offers grants for undergraduates with high financial need to pursue academic studies or internships abroad. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and aims to diversify the student population abroad.

“I wouldn’t have been able to go if it weren’t for that scholarship,” Przybyszewski said.

She said she would be more than willing to offer advice and edit essays for any student interested in applying for the Gilman Scholarship.

“I just really am passionate about promoting study abroad,” she said. “It changes lives.”

To read more about Przybyszewski’s summer in Chile, go to



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