My STEP signature project consisted of an absolutely amazing trip to Valparaíso, Chile. I lived in Viña del Mar with a host family and studied at Pontifica Universidad Católica de Valparaíso for a month. After a month of taking classes, I got the chance to do Service Learning for a month as well. I was placed in Instituto Chileno Norteamericano, which is an English language institute and cultural center in Valparaíso. I helped in the classes, held English language conversation sessions for the students, did tutoring sessions, and even got to lead my own workshop where I taught basic Mandarin Chinese. My experience living abroad has shown me many things about myself, my future goals, and about the world in general.
Most importantly, my trip abroad proved that I am capable of living and working abroad. I always thought that that was what I wanted to do, but now I am completely sure of it. I was worried that I would show up in Chile and realize that I had made a huge mistake, but that’s not what happened at all. I felt like I fit right in. My Spanish was sufficient enough to hold conversations with natives without much of a problem, I loved both Viña del Mar and Valparaíso, and I got along with the staff at the Institute really well. However, this experience did make me realize that I still have things to work on with my Spanish as well as my ability to teach English. This realization wasn’t discouraging though, it gave me hope for the future knowing that I can always learn something new, even about topics that I have studied for quite some time.
Working at the Institute was the game changer in my trip. My experience there was what made me realize that I still have some work to do, but overall my goals for the future are very much in my reach. I basically got to live the life of myself from the future. I used the subway, got to know the area around the institute extremely well, made friends with my colleagues, and thoroughly enjoyed my time in the English classes. During this time, I was living life like any Chilean would. Where I was felt like home. It truly felt like I lived there and not like I was just on a short trip. Seeing that I can get used to a new place confirmed that I do really want to live abroad in the future.
However, before I can teach English abroad in the future, I will have to get a TESOL or TEFL license. The thought of having to be taught how to teach your own language sounded absolutely ridiculous to me, but my time at the institute proved to me that that training was actually necessary. There would be times when a student or a fellow teacher would ask me a super specific question about the English language and I wouldn’t know the answer right off hand. Being a native speaker, I just perform all of these super complicated grammar rules and structures without thinking about it, so their questions would catch me off guard. Half of the time my answer would be something along the lines of, “I don’t know why we say it that way, but we do…” Also, there are some terms that they use to describe English grammar patterns that I just flat out do not know. I never learned those terms because I picked up English naturally and I was never in a language learning classroom for English. In some respects, I was out of my depth. I spoke the language, but I didn’t have the knowledge to explain certain things. I have gained a new respect for TESOL and TEFL training that I did not have before.
As for the world in general, I have come to realize that everyone, even those from different countries and backgrounds, is so similar to each other. There may be some tiny cultural differences and of course different languages, but people are just people. Cultural differences shouldn’t be a dividing factor because we are way more similar than we are different. There was one night in particular where this realization hit me hard.
On that particular night, my Chilean friend, Jorge, was taking me to meet his other friends. We went to an event at the botanical gardens and then ended up at a video game bar. One of his friends looked at me and asked, “Is it weird for you to be in a bar to play video games?” I just laughed because I knew my friends back at home would have absolutely loved that place. We go to very similar places in the U.S. As the night went on I realized more and more that the group of people I was with would get along so well with my friends from the states. They have similar personalities, they like similar things and they have the same sense of humor. At one point in the night I thought to myself, “How on earth did I find the exact SAME group of people only in a different country??” People are just people.
My trip also made me realize how lucky I am to live in the United States. Of course, the US is in no way a perfect country. We have our problems just like every other country, but judging from what I saw in Chile, our problems are on a different level than the problems that Chile and other countries are facing, especially regarding issues such as poverty and education. The US has some problems in these areas as well, but not to the extent that I saw in Chile. The US is a first world country, and sometimes we forget what that really means.
In Chile, there is a huge problem with the distribution of wealth. So, we would see a city made up of just shacks made out of scrap metal on one side of the road, and then on the other side of the road we see a huge developed, modern, city. The contrast was shocking. Also, in grocery stores there was an option to have a payment plan for your grocery bill, so families don’t have to pay a huge bill all at once. The community has adapted to the level of poverty that is all around them. We are very lucky to live in a first world country where most cities are modern cities and not just made up of shacks.
Another issue that was brought to my attention in Chile were the problems with their education system. Good education in Chile is really expensive, so the huge gap between the rich and the poor shows in education as well. The free public schools do not provide quality education. The teachers slack because they aren’t paid well and there are sometimes up to 50 kids in one class. With this kind of environment, the kids in those schools have no chance of competing with kids with a private school education for scholarships in the future. The education system is not fair to everyone. Multiple colleagues of mine at the institute told me stories about teaching in public schools and about how terrible it was for them. Quality education is truly a privilege that we take for granted in the states.
The combination of all of these revelations and experiences made my trip to Chile a truly transformational experience. Everything that I learned in Chile is relevant to my professional goals and will help me tremendously in the future. Now that I have lived abroad and have done the job that I was hoping to have, I know that that is what I want to do in the future. Also, this trip has brought back my excitement of language learning and teaching, so now I am looking forward to improving my Spanish and also improving my English teaching abilities through a TESOL of TEFL program. I also gained work experience that taught me more than any class would have. I know what I need to work on and I know what I need to focus on to become the professional that I would like to become someday.
Here is my blog that gives you a play by play of my trip: