Why Go to College in Venezuela?

In a very hostile social context and with tuitions being beyond what most can pay, we talked to a few fortunate young Venezuelans to know their expectations for the future with the education they’re getting today

"A bargain with major caveats."

Photo: Wikimedia

I don’t know when we, young Venezuelans, stopped wondering the typical “should I wear a skirt or pants to school?” and started worrying about exchanging what we made at work from bolivars to dollars. We can see and feel how our quality of life deteriorates, but we also realize that this is evident because of a privilege some of us enjoyed as private school students, who might know a second language and have (or had) the opportunity to travel, a very stark contrast with the reality of another 17-year-old that goes to public school.

In 2015, things weren’t as bleak yet, and we stood at the edge of hope: the opposition would win that parliamentary election in December of that year. I had to decide where and what I was going to study, and analyzing my acceptance letters and the careers I had in mind, I noticed I didn’t make it into my first choice, International Studies. I could go for another career (Political Science), and I got into several universities, or study a different major at one of the best universities in Venezuela. 

So I chose to study Law at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. Knowing that a lot could happen in five years in this country, I gave myself a sort of test. I put my fears and doubts on hold, and I looked for the opportunities this country had, following what most privileged adults say: “This is the country of opportunities.” 

But what is the real cost of opportunities if it implies living in fear, or failing at performing many simple tasks just because the government’s incompetence is making the entire country suffer daily power outages, when you just can’t work because there isn’t any internet connection in your neighborhood? You look for solutions, such as your personal hotspot, or you try to go to a friend’s house, but you can’t actually move because your car is out of gas; your mind goes on and on in a vicious circle, until eventually you pull through and get a hold of the situation, prevailing at great costs.

Then again, the “This is the country of opportunities” mindset is still very present in the minds of the recently graduated Venezuelan youth. A newly enrolled engineering student at private university Universidad Metropolitana said something very interesting when I asked why study here instead of elsewhere, when the opportunity is feasible: “I initially chose Venezuela because I ruled out everything else. After not being able to get the best scholarships in the United States and not having decided on any place in Europe, I realized that I was going to stay here. But when I saw it as a reality, I started to see all the positive things that come from staying here, being with my family and friends, and enjoying opportunities to work with people I know.” 

So there’s hope for that future in this country, perhaps at an older age.

I asked him what he thought would be the main difference between studying in Venezuela and studying abroad, and he answered pointing at a very specific topic: “The education itself; it is clear that the educational system in almost any other place is far superior to the Venezuelan one. But I’ll also be able to create ties with people I’ll be working with in my future, which I felt was important as well. In the end, not everything is academic; you have to take into account relationships and contacts.” 

In both answers, we see words such as “opportunities” and “relationships”, that indicate how Venezuela still offers some things far more important that the academic factor in our upbringing as professionals, and that is something that is considered when choosing whether to stay here or be part of the millions of Venezuelans that have left for better chances elsewhere. 

I had to ask him, though, if he was leaving the country as soon as he finished his studies. “I’ll leave for sure,” he said, “but not permanently. I’ll be able to get work experience in the best places (if possible) although ideally I would go to pursue an MBA or postgraduate degree at some university that I feel will contribute to my future depending on my field and personal vision. Then I will come back and make my family and work life here.” 

So there’s hope for that future in this country, perhaps at an older age.

A Clearly Defined Pattern

The decision of staying isn’t easy for a 17-year-old, because you’re choosing your future for the next four to five years in a very unstable nation, but once we get past that big bridge and accept the facts, we strive for excellence. We always see headlines reading, “Venezuelan University Won At (The Most Prestigious Competition),” and that’s nothing but trying to shine here, to have the best opportunities when or if we decide to leave. Moving further down the path of higher education, we start to consider jobs and possible internships, which should come easily given the “country of opportunities” cliché and how the vast majority of young people are focused on careers within the conservative mindset of our parents and society, such as law, engineering, economics, that should have plenty of job offerings. Well, the actual opportunities are somewhat rare but when they do come, you have to push barriers and prove to yourself and others (as you should) that this is meant for you.

I asked Alvaro, a 22-year-old civil engineering student who is soon to complete his major also at Universidad Metropolitana, why leaving the country wasn’t an option for him. “I did consider (leaving) at one point, I applied for soccer scholarships to universities in the United States but I didn’t feel confident and convinced to leave, so I stayed.” 

Staying in the country as a long-term plan is possible only through the hope that things will get better.

When considering the elements that go into studying abroad (possible scholarships, tuition, languages, adaptation to different cultures, housing), it looks like a bargain to study in Venezuela; you have certain comforts that only a few would have after emigrating, and even the cost itself is notoriously lower when compared to those in America. Yet most of the people my age that I know wonder if we’re settling for living comfortably just because we’re in our home country, while knowing that things are so eroded in parts of Venezuela that the question turns into pain, particularly now that all universities have raised their tuitions and a semester can cost up to a thousand dollars, which makes it unaffordable to most. 

So, yes: a bargain, with major caveats.

I continued asking Alvaro about his plans and if there’s a possibility of leaving the country at some point, and his reply was: “Yes, I’m thinking about pursuing a postgraduate degree abroad.” There’s a pattern: We want to nourish our education abroad, and that exposes these young students to different countries where things work as they’re supposed to. 

I asked Miguel, a 22-year-old economics graduate from American University in Washington D.C. if the cost of college abroad is worth what he learned. “Without a doubt,” he said, “education abroad has a fairly high cost, even more so when you are an international student. However, I believe that every penny of this investment was worth it. Not just because of the academic aspect, but also for personal growth. I left home when I was 18 to live in a city I’d never been to in my life and to practice a language I didn’t speak as I do today. It allowed me to improve my language skills, meet people from different countries and cultures, and today I can say that I have a more global understanding of certain things.” 

I’m on the eve of starting my second-to-last semester of Law, at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, and from what I experienced in these four years, I can see that the opportunities are here, the chance to grow personally and professionally is here, but staying in the country as a long-term plan is possible only through the hope that things will get better, a hope that shakes daily. 

There are about 60 people left in my semester. Naturally, we want to specialize in different areas, some in the public sector, others in the private sector, some may not even practice, but we all share the wish to live abroad, to breathe calmly and have the possibility of staying in this other country: I will expand my education abroad. Five out of five students said they’d leave the country some time after graduating; even the students that are more related to the political struggle feel that it would be a well-deserved change of scenery. Without wanting to sound entitled, I personally see it as a reward for all the hard work of just being here.

If things don’t change, we’ll have another generation of professionals that didn’t leave the country, but fled.