Study Abroad in the Galapagos Islands
During my STEP experience, I lived with a host family in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. While there, I had the opportunity to learn Spanish through immersion and teach English to students ages 10-15. I was able to learn a lot about the language and culture through my teaching, my host family and my exploration of the islands during my free time.
I’ve never pictured myself as a person who has the ability to stand up in front of a classroom and teach, but in the Galapagos, I didn’t have a choice. From the very first day, even though we had only gotten three hours of sleep on the plane, the other volunteers and I were placed in front of 15 students and instructed to teach a lesson. Not only did I have to work on my fear of public speaking, especially to a group of middle to high school children, but I also had to recall the Spanish I had learned a year previously and plan a lesson. It was incredibly challenging to stand up in front of a classroom and teach them in a language in which I am not fluent. After this experience, I am far more confident taking charge of a large group of people or speaking in front of a room in Spanish or in English. I think the trip really allowed me to work on my public speaking skills. Speaking to kids is in some ways even harder than speaking to adults. Adults will at least be polite enough to pretend to be interested, but children, especially ages 10-15, will not have such manners. I am better able now to hold people’s attention, speak with confidence and communicate effectively.
I also was able to work on communication skills in both English and Spanish. In Spanish, I had to struggle to remember vocabulary and grammatical structure as I was speaking, which was had for the first week, but I was able to settle in. I think struggling through the Spanish communication took a lot of determination and perseverance and helped me grow as a person. It would have been easy to ask others to translate, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to fight my way through it on my own with both the kids and my host family. Because I needed to communicate effectively with a language barrier, I feel that my communication skills in English have grown as well. I am better able to judge whether or not I am speaking clearly, making sense or staying on one topic from speaking to the children in English. I am more confident communicating with anyone now, with or without a language barrier.
As was briefly discussed in the previous two paragraphs, I think my position as an English teacher primarily led to my personal change and growth. For 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, I was a leader, a teacher, a friend and a foreigner. I had to blend these in a way that made me approachable and likeable to the children, but also in a way that they could learn from me. As an assistant in the first two classes of 6-7 year old students, it was really a challenge to communicate in an age appropriate way and lead them in a way that wouldn’t decay into chaos 15 minutes into class. Beginning my placement and each day with young students allowed me to grow as a leader and practice my public speaking in a less threatening setting before moving to older students.
The most challenging part of my placement was my first class of the day – a class full of 10 year olds who very apparently did not want to be there. Kids are so critical and they could tell from the start that my Spanish was less than great and that did not earn me any respect. I had to really focus on communicating to them in Spanish and in English what we were learning and why and overcome my public speaking fear as I went. As middle school students whose parents likely enforced their presence in my class, they were not exactly the friendliest bunch of children during class. They were critical; they would stop paying attention if they didn’t understand what was going on; they would refuse to do things that they didn’t think were fun. Looking back at a classroom full of blank stares is not an easy thing to do when you are not entirely confident to begin with. As time went on, though, the kids warmed up to my co-teacher and me. By the end of my four-week placement, the kids respected us and were sad to see us go. Not only was this a confidence boost and made teaching them less scary, I think it can be attributed to better communication and better leadership skills.
Living with my host family was another exercise in communication and cultural acceptance skills every day. From the time I woke up to the time I went to bed, I had to communicate with them. Not only was it hard to communicate with them in Spanish at the beginning, but it was a challenge to remember all of the things we needed to let them know. At school, I’m not used to answering to anyone – I come and go from my apartment as I wish. I had to remember in the Galapagos to ask for help if I needed something, tell them where I would be going and when I would be home, let them know if we liked or disliked the food or living arrangements. As someone who tends to fear confrontation and shys away from it, I’m glad I had the opportunity to live with strangers so I can grow as a communicator. By living with them for four weeks, I also really had the chance to grow in Ecuadorean culture. I got to embrace every aspect of the culture every day, giving me a much stronger appreciation for different ways of life than I would have gained in a hostel.
In the future, I hope to be a physician and a researcher with an MD/PhD duel degree. Throughout my career, I will always be a leader, a public speaker and a communicator. I hope to teach classes and also work in a teaching hospital. If my career does take this direction, I will always need to be able to stand in front of a group of people and teach them in a way that will hold their attention and convey exactly the information I want them to know. Even if I do not end up a teacher in the literal sense, as a researcher I will constantly need to teach others about my research. I will need to present results to other researchers, teach students about my projects so they can assist me and teach funders about the projects so I can receive grant money. Communicating for so long with a language barrier just adds another layer to my communication skills. In a rapidly globalizing world, I will need to present to collaborators or others who will not necessarily speak English. I have confidence that I wouldn’t shy away from those experiences now.
In addition to the ability to communicate, having cultural appreciation is incredibly important for any wordly person, especially a physician and researcher. I will encounter numerous different cultures in my career path. The ability to understand a culture, not judge a person by their culture and be sensitive to their different values or customs will be invaluable. Being culturally sensitive will make me a better physician, a better researcher in epidemiology and at the very least a better traveler. By living in a new culture for a month, I have confidence that I could adapt and accept a culture if needed to help someone in my future career. I am so grateful that I had the ability to gain these skills now.