Students reflect on political activism during their time studying abroad


Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Protesters set up roadblocks outside the Mong Kok police station in Hong Kong, on September 8, 2019.

Ashley Capoot, Reporter

When Weinberg junior Neha Pashankar embarked on her semester abroad in Chile, she knew she was about to become immersed in a completely new culture. However, she said she could never have anticipated that she would be tear-gassed in the streets of Santiago as she marched with over one million other protesters.

Pashankar is one of many Northwestern students studying abroad in cities like Santiago, Hong Kong and Barcelona, where major political protests have broken out.

In Chile, protests first broke out in October when the government raised public transportation fares. President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency after an estimated 60 percent of the city’s subway stations were damaged by protesters.

Piñera ultimately repealed the fare, but he deployed Chile’s military to the streets for the first time since the fall of Agusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship in 1990. Unrest still permeates the country and protests continue. On Monday, Piñera announced that he is willing to draft a new constitution.

There is no longer a state of emergency in Chile, but Pashankar said her classes still have not resumed, and people now carry around sodium bicarbonate to neutralize the effects of the tear gas. Nonetheless, she said she still feels safe walking around most parts of the city and found the protests empowering.

“It’s really a cool and unique experience that I got to study here while this was all happening because this is history,” Pashankar said. “It seemed very happy. They shout this thing called ‘pueblo unido’ which means ‘the town united,’ so it was like everyone was here fighting the same cause, so it was pretty powerful to watch.”

McCormick junior Tommy Cohen is also studying abroad in Santiago, and he said that although he feels slightly removed from the movement because he is not native to the region, he’s honored to participate.

Cohen said he was especially struck by unity among the protesters.

“It’s not like a small portion of the country that’s coming together to support the movement,” he said. “It’s a very unified movement which has been awesome to see.”

Similar protests broke out in Hong Kong in June when officials implemented an unpopular bill permitting the extradition of criminals to mainland China and Taiwan. However, the movement has evolved and now largely symbolizes a fight for greater autonomy.

Weinberg junior Amelia Russo, currently studying in Hong Kong, said tensions have escalated because many of the protests in and around her campus have become more unsafe and violent. Between Friday and Monday, she said a student died, a protester was shot and another was set on fire.

Russo said that while the situation is undoubtedly serious, she has felt safe overall by avoiding areas where protests are occurring.

“It’s very scary that these protests are happening, but I definitely think it’s added to my abroad experience,” Russo said. “I’ve been able to engage with this political topic and learn a lot about it and learn a lot about the history of Hong Kong and their relationship with China. I’m definitely grateful to have that experience and to be able to interact with locals and other students on a daily basis and understand their perspectives on it.”

Russo said she also feels that the Western media hasn’t been informed enough about the protests because there is not enough overall coverage of the movement.

She said she hopes Northwestern students will keep this in mind as they read about the protests going forward.

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Twitter: @ashleycapoot