When and where did you volunteer abroad? What was your position?
I volunteered from January to December 2012 in Medellin, Colombia. I choose to volunteer with WorldTeach Colombia. WorldTeach is a non-profit organization that was founded by Harvard University. They send educated people teach English abroad in Third World countries on a volunteer basis. I was a university-level ESL (English as a Second Language) professor at Minuto De Dios.
What made you want to volunteer abroad?
I had always wanted to go abroad and had a great desire to commit my time to give back to my fellow man. I had dreams of grandeur and going on adventures helping children in faraway lands. I had completed my bachelor’s degree and was settling down with my husband. My dreams were growing further from reach the more comfortable I became. I had never gone out of the country for longer than a week and when I had traveled, I was usually aboard a comfortable cruise boat. I couldn’t sit idly by as my chances to go on my adventure sailed away. I had no grave responsibilities and no more excuses. I was at a point at my life where it was now or never. I chose NOW.
How did you conduct your search for a position? What made you select your program?
I had always been interested in teaching, so teaching English abroad was a natural choice for me. I was looking for a program that would allow me to teach English and allow for my husband and I to be placed together. I pored over the Internet. Searching for the perfect organization became my second job. I looked for an organization that fit my criteria, seemed creditable and one where my ambitions and beliefs aligned with the mission of the organization. Knowing exactly what I wanted from a program made it easy for me to sort through all the organizations out there. I came across WorldTeach and started a conversation with the staff in Cambridge. I spoke with alumni and recruiters, and I read current volunteers blogs. After doing my research, I was confident that WorldTeach was the right choice for me and my husband.
Describe the application process. What made you successful?
The application process was fairly rigorous. It included a standard application with references and at least two essays about your experiences abroad and your motivation to teach and volunteer. There was also an in-person or phone interview with an alumnus. I conducted my interview in person in my home city, while my husband had a phone interview. Both of our interviews left us reassured and confident about our involvement with WorldTeach. The most difficult aspect of the application process was waiting to hear back! I submitted my application by the beginning of August and didn’t hear anything back until the end of September; which seemed like eternity when I was trying to plan such a big step for my future. What was worse about the process was that I had to agree to a yearlong commitment without knowing what city I would be living in and who I would be teaching. I did not find this information out until just a few weeks before my departure date. However difficult the waiting was, the program was worth it; and once you’re committed to going, it should not really matter where and what you’re doing. I believe that I was successful through the application process because I demonstrated that I believed in their cause and that I was willing to do what it took to be successful.
What made your volunteer experience abroad a success?
My volunteer experience was a success because I stayed positive and determined. I focused on my goals, and had support from my family, my fellow volunteers and my field director. Things happen abroad that you don’t expect and you commit yourself to new experiences everyday regardless to if you feel adventurous or not. In order to deal with the daily challenges that living in a foreign country brings you have to stay flexible and roll with the punches. On one of my first days at my new apartment in Medellin, I was invited by my housemate to go for a walk in the park and take some pictures. I started my first day of school the very next morning so I thought a lovely relaxing day at a nearby park would be nice. By noon that afternoon I had already traveled for thirty minutes on the metro and was standing in line to jump on a cable car over the city. The rest of the day was filled with hiking and zip lining at what I would consider an amusement park. If this had happened to me at home I would have been stressed out thinking how tired I would be the next morning and how unprepared I was for such an eventful day. But I remained flexible went with the flow, experienced a fun day that I look back on and laugh at. This was something I would’ve probably passed on had I known what was involved but I am really glad that I went. Experiences like this one is what made my experience abroad successful.
How did you finance your trip abroad and did you find any creative solutions to stay on budget?
Financing my trip was a big prerequisite for me. I fundraised some of the expenses asking my family and friends for donations. I saved for a little more than a year before going abroad. I still did not have a lot of money once I started my adventure in Colombia. I received a stipend from my volunteer organization once a month which I had to budget. I generally spent the bare minimum on daily costs and learned to perfect my cooking skills with food from the Colombian market. One thing that was important for me to learn was that cooking and grocery shopping in Colombia was not the same as it is in the United States. I had to focus on the cheapest foods and brands, which were all Colombian. I learned to love mangos and papayas instead of apples and oranges. I learned to cook everything from scratch because everything from a package or a can was imported and therefore more money. By making changes on my grocery lists I was able to stay on budget.
What was the most important thing you learned about communicating in a foreign culture while volunteering abroad?
I built so many communication skills while I was abroad. I was in a Spanish-speaking country – and I arrived not knowing any Spanish. When you don’t know the native language, you really learn to pick up on other types of communication, like body language. I got to know so many people without a strong sense of their language because of body language. I learned that I could follow a conversation through gestures, facial expressions and tone. I utilized this understanding in my classroom as well so that I could give my class a full English immersion lesson and they could still learn.
What was your return like? Do you plan to go abroad again?
I have returned to the United States and this trip has really changed me in ways that I didn’t fully understand while I was abroad. Living in a different culture for such a long time changes your perception, which was apparent on my return home. I looked at everything differently and challenged the things that I considered normal. I do plan to go abroad again. I loved my experience and learned a lifetime of skills and achieved a lifetime of accomplishments that it would be difficult for me to get comfortable in my home country again.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
My number one tip for anyone looking to volunteer abroad is to go into the experience without expectations. It is truly impossible to predict the experience that you will have abroad so the best way is to just dive in. Once you have decided and you are committed to your experience just go with the flow. Surrender to the experience and know that the challenges you face today will be different tomorrow.
What did you miss most about home?
Medellin had many of the amenities that you would expect at home. I really didn’t miss anything major and I found that if I missed something small I could usually find it. That being said there were some things that I wish I had personally. One is a consistent warm shower; cold showers in the morning are just not something I could get used to. Another was pumpkins in the fall. I could not find canned pumpkin, the vegetable or even pumpkin-flavored anything!
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I considered returning to Medellin to continue teaching. I actually lined up a job and went apartment-hunting and planned my return. Some unforeseen events led me to stick around in my home country for the time being. Now, I am in the process of continuing my teaching career in Richmond, Virginia.
Jessica has provided an excellent in-depth account of her first experience teaching abroad. Her experience highlights the need for any international volunteer to roll with the punches and keep an open mind. Every trip abroad has its challenges, but positivity and creativity can turn challenges into opportunities. Jessica seems to have an interest in building her international teaching career experiences further. We’d recommend that she continue to expand her international skills by volunteering or working abroad in a different region of the world (for instance, teaching with an NGO in Africa or South Asia). Another avenue to consider is that an individual with a master's degree can often find university lecturer positions abroad, or positions at international schools in major urban centers. The resources below will be useful for anyone considering a teaching position abroad, or anyone looking for short or long-term volunteer positions abroad. Jessica clearly has a good attitude towards soaking up local culture while she’s abroad, so we hope she’s able to get back overseas soon!
- Teaching English As a Stepping Stone to Your International Career explains some of the most common personal and professional motivations for teaching English abroad and how the skills developed can serve you in your future career.
- Read the Teach English Abroad section to get a sense of whether this might be an ideal career-boosting international adventure for you.
- English isn’t the only subject you can teach abroad. Check out Who Hires Licensed Teachers? in the Teaching Abroad As A Licensed Teacher section to read about other options for those interested in going abroad long-term.
- Check out the International Volunteer Opportunities Resource List to begin researching short and long-term opportunities of all types.