Andrea Dankert's first trip to Argentina five years ago was a living lesson in culture shock, but when she returned over Christmas to see old friends and familiar places,?she came away with a new understanding of both herself and this culture that had taken her in as one of their own.
Dankert, a senior marketing and strategic communications major from Broken Bow, Okla., first visited Argentina as a 16-year-old exchange student. "When I first went, the Bible Belt was all I knew," she said. "I’d been raised in a very conservative family and culture. So I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew that I wanted to escape Oklahoma." She laughs. "So I got there and it was so different. All kinds of things, big and small. When you go into a room there, no matter how many people are in it or who they are, you’ve got to kiss every single person there on the cheek. Same thing when you leave. So it was a lot of culture shock. So many cultural things I didn’t understand nor necessarily like, so I didn’t integrate myself as much as I should have."
Andrea Dankert recently made a return trip to Argentina, to gather materials for the final chapter in her book, "Memoirs of an Exchange Student."
Dankert says she was given the opportunity to back to Argentina, to Rosario, the city where she’d spent her 16th year, for two weeks over Christmas break. "This time I wanted to go back with an open mind, to see things with a totally different perspective," she said. "In the past five years I’ve spent a lot of time with Latin Americans on campus, and I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot as a person, so I hoped this experience would be different, and it really was."
Dankert’s return trip was funded by a grant from U of O’s Academic Enrichment Fund. The purpose of the fund is to offer competitive grants to students in support of their research or creative projects, professional preparation through internships, and study abroad.
"When I first went to Argentina, I did fundraising to get money together to go for that year," Dankert says. "So I decided to send out a newsletter every month to all the people who had contributed, to let everyone know what I was learning and experiencing, culture shock, the whole thing. I still have all those newsletters, so I thought it’d be really cool to go back, to re-experience Argentina with open eyes, and write the final chapter of my newsletter. Now I’m compiling them all into a book and will have copies made and a copy in the library for anybody who wants to read it."
Dankert’s project has the working title Memoirs of an Exchange Student.
"When I first went there I didn’t know a single person, not what family I was going to stay with, nothing. I just knew their names," Dankert says. "I got there and met them and it took awhile to become a part of their family but they were very good to me. I got in trouble just like their kids did, and I got scolded the same way; but that just showed me they really did care for me. I went to an all girls’ Catholic school and made some friends with the craziest girls, so it was good to go back and see them."
She says she learned not only what she valued in Argentinean culture, but also in her own. "We have hard workers here and stress punctuality," she said. "On the other hand, people in that culture stress the whole importance of spending time together as family. Just sitting around the dinner table and talking is a big deal. When my host family had people over, we were usually at the dinner table until about 2:30 in the morning. Everyone’s laughing, arguing, yelling at each other. It’s funny because what might be a huge debate one minute turns into laughter the next. If a good song came on the radio, my host grandmother would just get up and start dancing! I videotaped that because it was so funny. She just loves to dance."
She says during her initial visit there, she made less an effort to integrate herself into the family. "I was young," she said. "Before, I hated it when we’d sit at the dinner table till 2:30 - I just wanted to go to bed! I didn’t want to listen to their conversation or be a part of it. But this time I did want to fit in, so my mindset made a lot of difference."
She says initially when she heard something she didn’t agree with, she was prone to make snap judgments, but she left this attitude behind this time around. "Here’s an example," she said. "I learned that people there don’t really get engaged anymore, for the most part. I thought, how strange. But the reason behind it is they don’t want to get married until everything is ready - until their house is built, until it’s furnished, until they’ve got the appliances, everything. And since a lot of people there don’t have a lot of money, and all that preparation takes awhile, so they wait. My host cousin had been dating this guy for about two years, and at some point they decided they were going to get married, so they’ve started the process of building their life together. They bought their piece of land together, and they’ve started building their house. They’ve been looking for good deals on appliances. So it’s this process they go through, and once the house is ready, then they’ll save up for the wedding. But for them, a formal engagement is an unnecessary expense. At first I felt I would miss that, but for them it’s an antiquated tradition."
Dankert said her recent reunion was amazing. "I didn’t really do anything extraordinary. I went to the park. I ate ice cream. I hung out with my friends. Those everyday moments were what made my trip special. Spending time with them and becoming a part of another culture is such a strange experience. It’s not something everybody gets to do, you know? This trip wasn’t about going as a tourist. It was about becoming a part of another culture."
Looking back through her old newsletters has been a surprising endeavor. "As I read back through them I can’t believe some of the things I said and thought!" she says. "It is going to be difficult to go back through it all as an editor and not want to change anything, to make myself look better. But I have to do it this way, without making the changes. That’s who I was; this is who I am now. But I’m going to write a foreword at least saying ‘Please excuse some of my thinking!’ It’s a little bit nerve wracking to think of publishing this and having others read it because it’s something that’s so personal, and it’s very revealing about my personality and my thoughts because you see just everything that was going though my mind when I was young and hadn’t seen much of the world."