College of Education to offer first graduate-level study abroad course

Rebecca Tarlau Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Rebecca Tarlau would like to buck the trend that study abroad isn’t an integral element of doctoral programs, and she and two colleagues are about to unveil the College of Education’s first-ever graduate-level embedded study abroad course.

The assistant professor of education (lifelong learning and adult education) in the Department of Learning and Performance Systems (LPS) was joined by John Holst, associate professor of education, and independent researcher Maria Alicia Vetter to create a Penn State Maymester (summer 2020) course titled "Education and Social Change in Chile."

A major focus of the course is on adult education and Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educational theorist who authored the book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Tarlau, Holst and Vetter study the role of education within social movements in Latin America and collectively thought it would be beneficial for doctoral students to see in person what social movement educational initiatives look like.

“The three of us started thinking about not just a course in Chile, but as a series of study abroad courses for our doctoral students that could shift between Chile, Brazil and Cuba; we decided to pilot the first one in Chile,” Tarlau said.

Tarlau and Holst applied for a global travel grant from Penn State, and Holst and Vetter spent the summer of 2018 in Chile connecting with Citizens’ Watch (Observatorio Ciudadano), a non-governmental organization that works directly with local indigenous movements, feminist movements and other social movements in Chile. “The organization was really excited about the idea about developing a program for not undergraduates, but for graduate students on this theme of education and social change,” Tarlau said.

“We started talking to them about this relationship and having them help us organize a trip in Chile. Eventually it was decided that I was going to be the faculty member leading the trip in Chile, but it's been a total collaborative effort to develop the course.”

The embedded student abroad program will have in-residence classes on both ends of the May 17-June 2 trip to Chile. “My guess is that the doctoral students who go on this program will be students who want to learn more about Latin America, and more specifically about the role of education in Chile,” Tarlau said.

“And I would say, thematically, Chile is such an important country to study education and social change. It's always had vibrant social movements that have incorporated adult education and non-formal popular education within their movements.”

Furthermore, after the military coup that took place in Chile in 1973, the military dictator Augusto Pinochet, in power until 1990, drastically transformed the school system by implementing market-based educational reforms, including an expansive voucher program that was inspired by the Chicago economist Milton Friedman and implemented by a team of his advisors known as the “Chicago boys.” These same policies, after being experimented in Chile, then became more popular in 1990s and 2000s in the United States, according to Tarlau. However, the effectiveness of these policies in Chile is highly contested in the academic literature.

“Next May is going to be a really interesting moment to be in Chile, because over the past months massive protests have erupted in Chile, which are partially in response to these neoliberal reforms. I am currently working with Citizen’s Watch to make part of the course focus on why these protests happened, and also their consequences and how they are currently transforming Chilean education and society,” Tarlau said.

Tarlau first visited Latin America as a teenager, she majored in Latin American studies and anthropology as an undergraduate, and her dissertation was about education and social change in Brazil. She also lived in Brazil on and off for five years. 

Her students’ rigorous schedule will include multiple required books to read, and they’ll discuss topics such as Latin American historical trends;socialist mobilization and popular education: Chile before the dictatorship; dictatorship, neoliberalism and educational restructuring in Chile;and social movements in contemporary Chile.

They’ll be primarily based in the city of Santiago where they will be visiting different human rights, labor and education organizations, including the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which is dedicated to the victims of human rights violations during the military regime. They’ll also take a number of trips outside of the city of Santiago, including to the city of Valparaíso and also to the indigenous town of Curarrehue.

The program fee, outside of tuition, likely will be $2,500, Tarlau said. “That's a pretty cheap for a study abroad program but it's still a lot for a doctoral student who is making very little money. Luckily my department is planning to put some money toward student fellowships,” said Tarlau, who thanked department head Roy Clariana and the LPS staff for their ongoing assistance.

“Anyone who's taken a class with me knows that it's always a lot of work. My goal as a teacher is for students to think of me as one of their hardest professors, but one of their best professors. They had to work really hard but it was worth it is -- especially for doctoral students specifically,” Tarlau said. “I think it's going to be an amazing experience, both for the students and for me, so I'm really excited.”

Graduate students interested in enrolling in the course should contact Tarlau at

Last Updated December 18, 2019