GoAbroad Interview

Jorge Molina Zuñiga - Resident Director

Jorge Molina Zuñiga

Jorge was born and raised in Santiago, Chile, but he moved to Argentina when he was 18 to work for a U.S. trading company. After spending time in Argentina, he decided to come home to Santiago eventually to go to college and become an English language teacher. Soon after graduation, Jorge decided to pursue a graduate program in school administration and management. Jorge loves traveling within South America at least twice a year. He also enjoys eating out, the summer, the beach (which is available everywhere in Chile), and good Latin American music and artists. 

You’ve been working for USAC since 2013. What inspired you to grab the opportunity?

While in school, I was talking to my school study abroad advisor about scholarships to study abroad, and all I can remember after that is me working with her as the program assistant. I don’t know how it happened exactly, but I enjoyed my job and since then I’ve felt this strong connection with exchange and study abroad programs.

My boss came in one day to give me good and bad news. I told her to start with the bad news, so I could feel better with the good news. She said that I would not be working with her anymore because there was a program in Santiago that was looking for a new assistant. I read all about the program, loved it right away, applied, had the job interview with USAC, and here I am.  

Sunset at the moon valley in the Atacama Desesrt, Northern Chile
Sunset at the moon valley, Atacama Desert - Northern Chile.

What does a typical day of work look like for you?

There's a running list of things that we go over daily: checking with professors if everything is fine, printing out school material, staff meetings, training, financial reports, planning new host families, and so on. There are also school activities we join as USAC, games and activities with the conversation partners (something like language buddies), and local festivities we plan for our students. Along with that, we have at least one activity or trip every week, so we are busy arranging transportation, booking particular locations, and designing flyers and graphics for students, so they get to see exactly what we see as citizens and not as "tourists" in Santiago. 

We care about students having the full immersion experience, so we spend time taking them to produce markets, the theatre to see a play, or historical neighborhoods. Having them interact with locals is what makes us feel we're doing a good job here. Sometimes, when there's free time, grabbing a coffee with students is also something we like doing; it helps us stay in touch with them and socialize not only academically. This allows us to see how they're doing and keep track of their experience in Chile.

How do you ensure every student enjoys his or her time abroad?

This is a hard question. You plan a year in advance the whole calendar, host families, trips, and you have it all figured out. There’s optional tours and activities you offer your students to join but you know it’s not 100 percent of them who are going to join you or end up enjoying the activity. What we do instead is to offer varied activities, at very different times, so all students can find something they may like. This is a study abroad program, so we focus on academic aspects mainly and we complement that experience with trips and tours that will make the whole time abroad enjoyable.

Students hiking in La Campana National Park, Chile
Hiking with summer session students - La Campana National Park

What are your best tips for students considering study abroad in Chile?

Enjoy every little moment you have here, even the uncomfortable ones because that is when you’re growing. That is in fact when you’re learning. Take the opportunity to learn a wonderful new language –I speak both English and Spanish and a little bit of Portuguese, so I know learning and understanding different languages can be a challenge- but that learning takes time and should be fun!

Try all the new food you’ll see, visit all places you can, talk to everyone, children, people your age, elderly people, and anyone else, learn why other countries/cultures do and think the way they do, and stop, watch, breathe, listen to what’s around you. Don’t forget: you’re very privileged compared to the many millions of people around the world who have never been out of their own city!

How does USAC support language learning through the Santiago program?

As far as language learning for the students, USAC offers intensive language courses grouped into tracks in which courses are taught sequentially (back to back) within one semester. This means students are able to complete up to two years of college-level language within one semester while abroad. We also organize a variety of opportunities for students to interact with the locals, which helps build their language skills. Students can also volunteer within the community and get involved locally through internships to help build their language skills. 

Students in life jackets in southern Chile
Ready to sail away for a boat tour to see the penguins in southern Chile

How do you use your experience working abroad in Argentina to relate to students while they are adjusting to life in Chile?

I went through what they all go through when they leave their country, their relatives, and their friends, and start “building” everything back from scratch. Everything is new, everything is different. In fact it was quite a good experience to learn by myself what my students need and feel and want, but my very first time in Brazil was actually THE experience abroad in which everything was different. I didn’t even speak the language. That is when I understood deep inside what my students go through. From eating fruit for breakfast to buying an adaptor, I think I learned and know by myself what they all want, feel, and may need.

What is your favorite part about Santiago?

There’s everything you need, but it’s the South American version. We don’t have Walmart, we have Lider. We don’t have pico de gallo, we have pebre. We have the Andes to the east and the beach to the west only a one hour drive away. The international airport allows you to get to Buenos Aires, Argentina in two hours, Perú in three to four hours, and Uruguay in two hours. Who wouldn’t love that?

Man holding a small American flag
My “happy 4th of July” picture

Why do you think Santiago is the best place to study abroad in Chile?

Although there are other beautiful cities where students can go for their study abroad experience in Chile, I believe Santiago gives you the chance of enjoying what a large, capital city in South America is like. Most of our students come from small cities or towns. Getting to see in such a large scale how different societies, cultures, and economies develop is something not easy to find in other cities. 

What is the best part about working for USAC?

I would definitely say we’re like a family. USAC is huge if you think of all the schools related to it, but there’s a central office (USAC headquarters in Reno, Nevada) where we know each other very well. People from the central office and all the RDs around the world along with school advisors, coordinators, and directors gather once a year for a meeting in which we talk about the programs, ways to improve what we do, and share ideas that have worked for each program. We’re all friends with each other. I’m glad to say we “keep things cool,” and work the same way with the same goals and interests. There’s this friendly relation between everyone, AND on top of that, this job is so much fun! You get to travel, meet new people, and change or add things easily so your students enjoy it even more. Can you tell I love my job?