scorecardMy American daughter goes to college in Argentina. It's free, but there are no dorms or meal plans.
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My American daughter goes to college in Argentina. It's free, but there are no dorms or meal plans.

Leigh Shulman   

My American daughter goes to college in Argentina. It's free, but there are no dorms or meal plans.
LifeScience3 min read
  • My daughter and I live in Argentina, and she decided to go to college here instead of in the US.
  • Her college experience was very different from the one I had in the US.

We moved to Argentina when my kid was 4. I figured Lila would go back to the US for college, but when the time came, she decided to stay closer to home and go to the National University of Córdoba. I was thrilled.

There was one problem, though: I knew very little about Argentine universities. They're so different from what I experienced as a student at Barnard College in New York City. Friends who attended Argentine universities offered helpful advice, but I was lost.

Turns out, attending a university in Argentina and navigating student life are much more complicated than in the US, and ultimately, it was on Lila to navigate the system.

For starters, getting into the national university was very different from what I was used to back in the US

Getting into college in Argentina is much less stressful. There are no essays, no teacher references, and no interviews. High-school grades don't really matter, either.

All Lila had to do was send in a copy of her diploma and pass a 20-question test covering high-school biology and chemistry. The test is intense, but Lila joined a preparation class and passed the first time. Finally, she filled out a short application, paid a small fee, and was in.

Since tuition is free, we didn't have to bother with financial aid or scholarship applications.

Once students are enrolled, Argentine universities don't offer many resources to support them on campus

I remember arriving at college years ago feeling discombobulated, but I had a student-life coordinator walk me through my first few weeks. It helped enormously. As a freshman in the US, I was also given a place to live, a meal plan, and even health services.

Imagine my shock when I found out Lila's university didn't have any of that. Dorms, meal plans, and student-life coordinators just don't exist here.

We helped Lila rent a small studio apartment about a 20-minute bus ride from campus. As for the rest, she learned her way around her neighborhood and Córdoba on her own. As for books, food, and getting to class, it was all put on Lila to organize her life.

The National University of Córdoba is also designed to kick out students who aren't performing well

My college assigned me a student advisor who helped me when my grades fell. Córdoba does the opposite; the system is designed to jettison people who can't keep up.

For example, Lila's biochemistry program includes a lab course nicknamed el Colador — "the Strainer" — because so many students quickly flunk out.

It may seem harsh, but it makes sense because the college is free. Why allow students to enroll in a free education if they aren't doing the work? It's a far cry from college in the US, where parents call and complain about grades because they're paying tens of thousands of dollars for an education.

Even though I wasn't the student, all this was a difficult adjustment for me

After almost two decades of taking care of my child's needs, I didn't believe I could leave Lila to fend for herself at college — one that seemed to not prioritize the students' needs.

I had two options: get super involved and try to organize her life, or just let go. My inclination was toward the first, but rational thought told me I had no choice but to let her figure things out for herself.

And it worked. Lila just started her second year at the school, and she's grown so much. She'll also graduate with a master's degree — ready to find jobs in Argentina and outside the country. In the US, she'd need to go to graduate school to be eligible for the same opportunities.

Whenever I've mentioned studying abroad to US parents, they tell me that non-US schools don't properly prepare kids for the future. But letting Lila go figure out life on her own is proof that some schooling outside the US can work, too.