By Heather Butterworth | Photos courtesy of John Schengber and Emily Twigg

Through the early morning fog, Emily Twigg and John Schengber dug their ice picks into frozen ridges. Both JMU juniors studying abroad, neither of them had pictured themselves climbing an active volcano when they signed up to go to Chile. Five hours of climbing later, the pair could smell the smoking sulfur at the top of Chile’s Villarrica volcano.

More than 9,000 feet above sea level, they could see miles of Pucón’s lakes and rainforests.

“I was scared, not gonna lie,” Schengber says. “But the view was crazy — I kept trying to take pictures and got yelled at … you’d look around and start to realize you were slipping.”

Coming down from the volcano was another experience. Twigg and Schengber leaned back on sleds, zig-zagging downhill and trying to avoid rocks.

“The drifts were so deep and it was hard to walk,” Twigg says. “It was intense but I expected it to be harder.”

Twigg and Schengber had to wear special gear for the climb — from the standard helmet to protect themselves from falling ice to heavy-duty crampons, climbing spikes that attach to boots.

“When we were trying on all that equipment, that’s when I realized, ‘Oh s—, this is serious,’” Schengber says. “If our ice picks fell, we would’ve been screwed — we would’ve died.”

The volcano climb was one optional adventure through the International Studies Abroad Chile program. Since JMU does not have a semester-long program in Latin America, interested students have to go through an external program like ISA.

Twigg, an international affairs and Spanish double major, and Schengber, an international business major, wanted to strengthen their Spanish-speaking skills through language immersion. From July to December, they lived with host families.

“I’m Skyping my ‘mom’ and ‘niece’ tonight, actually,” Twigg says. “It’s like having a whole other extended family.”

Twigg and the women of her Chilean family, from left, Elisa, Ana, Edita and Dona, the family dog.
Twigg and the women of her Chilean family, from left, Elisa, Ana, Edita and Dona, the family dog.

During those six months, Twigg and Schengber didn’t have access to air conditioning, heat or dryers. Windows stayed open, and large, slow-moving horse flies filled their bedrooms at night. Because of the Chilean energy crisis, their host families stressed that nothing could be wasted — not even an unappetizing liver dinner.

“I had to tell my ‘mom,’ ‘I can’t eat this,’” says Twigg, laughing.

Unlike many study abroad programs, ISA students went to several different schools with mostly locals. Occasionally, there would be other international students who came from countries such as Spain. Finding another English speaker was a rarity — the program’s students were spread among several towns and didn’t see one another often.

Classes ranged from revolution and social change to history, all taught in Spanish. Although Schengber took business classes, he received Spanish credits.

Twigg says that, even though Chilean Spanish has a distinct accent, her Spanish conversations class at JMU is much less challenging for her than it is for her peers who have not studied abroad. This program also made it more plausible for her to have a second major.

“It’s just that Spanish comes so much more naturally now,” Twigg says. “I learned more [there] than I ever could have in a semester [at JMU].”

Language immersion sometimes had its awkward moments of miscommunication. When Schengber’s parents visited, his dad tried to say to the host family, “I’m so hot,” and actually said, “I’m so horny.”

“They couldn’t stop laughing,” Schengber says. “He [Schengber’s father] was trying though.”

Outside of classes and time spent with host families, students had freedom to explore the country. For fun with some of her friends, Twigg spent four hours hiking through a rainforest to find and examine the soon-to-be-extinct Darwin’s frog. Armed with GPS coordinates, Twigg looked for the tiny, extremely rare frog that can only be found in Chile. She was ecstatic when they finally found one.

A view of the city of Valparaiso, where junior Emily Twigg went to school.

“It was just so amazing,” Twigg says. “We got to see something not many people have seen.”

One of Schengber’s more memorable, unexpected experiences was salmon farming with a local. He and the farm owner worked in a boat together for a day, talking and catching fish. Another was embarking on a three-day hike.

“There were pumas — they were pretty much all you had to worry about, though,” Schengber says. “That, and spiders.”

While having these adventures and gaining fluency, Twigg and Schengber also learned about the country’s culture. From first-hand experience, they discovered that Chilean workers often go on strikes. An illegal mail strike blocked care packages from the U.S. for more than three weeks, eventually ending with workers receiving a bonus of one million pesos each.

But nothing could compare to when garbage workers went on hiatus. For nearly three weeks, thousands of pounds of trash piled in the streets. Of course that was when Twigg’s parents decided to visit her.

“It was disgusting,” Twigg says. “I had to explain to them, ‘No, it’s not like this all the time,’ because they got worried.”

Aside from labor strikes, the students also encountered racism, crime and, yes, plenty of food. Conversations with Chileans taught Twigg and Schengber about the locals’ perspective of the United States’ involvement in the 1973 Chilean uprising, which happened during the Cold War.

Twigg and Schengber say these experiences challenged any preconceived notions about the culture. Before studying there, they didn’t realize that Chileans wouldn’t know how to make a tortilla, or that many locals supported the dictatorship while it was in place.

“It’s fascinating to come into these countries and get a different perspective,” Schengber says. “It really pushes you to think differently.”

They both want to go back to travel Latin America.

“You have way too narrow of a world view if you never leave the U.S.,” Schengber says. “You don’t know what’s out there if you never look.”