Buenos Aires Director Travis Hill-Weber smiles for a picture with his wife, Harmony, and two children, Elias and Elora. The director said he is looking forward to students returning to the Argentine campus. Photo courtesy of Travis Hill-Weber
Argentine culture is one of physical intimacy — from exchanging kisses on first greeting to sharing a cup of mate and dancing tango cheek-to-cheek. In the midst of COVID-19, however, Buenos Aires has enforced the longest and one of the strictest quarantines in the world.
Prior to quarantine, Buenos Aires Director Travis Hill-Weber had an atypical start to his career in International Programs. He shared his experiences as a young father, a new International Program director and resident of Argentina.
“It’s still the same great city it’s always been,” Hill-Weber said. “We’re still thrilled to be here — our commitment to being here hasn’t changed because of this.”
Hill-Weber said he was drawn to the Buenos Aires director position because both he and his wife, Harmony, attended International Programs during their time at Pepperdine and found the experience to be “life changing.”
“We, Harmony and I, had always said that if this opportunity ever presented itself for us to come to Argentina, we would love to do that, and so it was a natural fit to return to Pepperdine in that way,” Hill-Weber said.
Hill-Weber began his first year as director in the fall of 2019 working from home in Tennessee, because he and his family had trouble securing a visa to move to Argentina. He first joined the Buenos Aires cohort in-country in October with a temporary travel visa and later moved with his family over winter break.
The 2020 spring cohort arrived in Buenos Aires on Jan. 17, and students flew home March 14, resulting in a little less than two months in the city.
“All of us in International Programs — we all do this work because we believe in it and we love having the students with us,” Hill-Weber said. “We think that the International Program is a particular highlight of the student experience at Pepperdine, and so to send students home, that’s the opposite of what we want to do.”
On March 16, the Argentine government announced a strict quarantine for all residents, closing borders, shutting down schools and limiting all public spaces. Regulations required everyone to be in their homes and only allowed them to leave to shop for groceries or seek medical care, Hill-Weber said.
The Buenos Aires program staff quickly adjusted plans to work from home; they had previously assumed they would have access to classrooms and other resources available at program house Casa Holden, but this was not the case.
Hill-Weber and his assistant directors, Maria Schwartz and Constanza “Tati” Guerrini, continue to meet once per week to develop the program, working on new curriculum and making plans for spring 2021 students. The Casa will also undergo some changes in accordance with California and Argentine COVID-19 regulations, Hill-Weber said.
“In many ways, we want to mirror what we’re doing in Malibu, but if something in Argentina requires us to do something differently, then we might have to alter that a little bit,” Hill-Weber said.
A few Buenos Aires faculty teach online classes for the Malibu campus during the fall 2020 semester, including Humanities professors Sebastian Provvidente and Rafael Sassot as well as Spanish Professor Laura Moldes.
Other program staff have also continued to work, including administrative assistants Valentina Monteagudo and Pedro Varon and bookkeeper Katia Aguilera. House staff — including Claudio Bibiloni, Liliana “Lili” Blanco and Miguela Godoy — are all still employed and working remotely “teletrabajo,” Hill-Weber said.
The Buenos Aires program is the only academic year program in which students live in homestays. The majority of homestay families are single, older women who program participants and staff affectionately call “madres,” or “mothers.” Schwartz continues to stay in contact with the madres throughout quarantine, Hill-Weber said.
“I know [the host families] miss you all immensely,” Hill-Weber said. “They want nothing more than to have students again, and like us, students bring a lot of energy and excitement, and so to have no students right now is certainly sad for all of us, including the host families.”
Being in a strict quarantine provided unexpected blessings for his family, Hill-Weber said. He and Harmony have two young children, Elora and Elias, who grew immensely over the past six months.
Elora celebrated her fifth birthday in August and Elias turned 1 in July. Elora started school in March, following the typical Argentine academic calendar, and had classes in person for two weeks before transitioning to remote instruction. Elias has since began walking, running and climbing and went from having zero to seven teeth, Hill-Weber said.
Hill-Weber said quarantine led to more walks and bike rides with his family as well as exploring more of their neighborhood.
“One of the things that’s come out of this for us as a family is we’ve really learned Belgrano very well because we’ve taken to walking everywhere,” Hill-Weber said. “We’ve gotten to know the city but especially our barrio.”
Hill-Weber and his staff also look to stay in touch with the 2021 spring cohort and future Buenos Aires program participants. He said program staff hosted a Zoom call for the spring 2021 cohort last week to remain available and connected to students.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm and interest in building community and getting to know each other and learning about Argentina, even in the midst of this strange semester,” Hill-Weber said.
The International Program application priority deadline for the 2021–2022 academic year closed Sept. 21, bringing a lot of excitement for the coming year as he talks with applicants, Hill-Weber said.
The city itself remains in strict quarantine, with public transportation open only to essential workers and indoor seating closed for restaurants, Hill-Weber said. Plazas and parks have reopened, but playgrounds remain blocked off.
Despite the long quarantine, Hill-Weber said the city and locals continue to feel warm and hopeful.
“There’s really a sense that we’re in this together,” Hill-Weber said. “There’s a sense of valuing and prioritizing community and what we need to do collectively as a community, as a country.”
Hill-Weber said he also remains hopeful for the coming semester and for the next group of Buenos Aires program participants to enjoy the city.
“We love to have students with us — in the classroom, on the patio, sharing asado on Thursdays,” Hill-Weber said. “We’re looking forward to having students again and sharing what this beautiful city has to offer.”
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