A Volunteer Abroad
The University of Tennessee, home sweet home to me. We have been the Volunteers since the founding of the University back in 1794. Saturdays in the fall are flooded with orange and white, fans singing Rocky top, and yelling “Go Vols!” as our football team runs through the T. We hold many traditions, but none are greater than that of being Volunteers. The embodiment of a volunteer is displayed on campus as the torchbearer. We, at the University of Tennessee, strive to live by the Volunteer creed, “One that beareth a torch shadoweth oneself to give light to others.”
I believe the best way to connect yourself with a community is to get involved, give your time, and volunteer. This can be as little, or as big, as you feel fit. Going abroad, sometimes it can be difficult to find those opportunities; luckily IFSA found them for me. There were several different volunteer opportunities available to us. We went to various organizations with one of the program leaders to learn about different ways we could get involved in the community. First we visited an organization that assisted those with various mental disabilities, our second stop was at a school to learn about how we could teach an English class, and our last stop was to a group of women who knit clothing for babies in the NICU (Newborn Intensive Care Unit). Though we only saw three organizations that day, several others were available to us as well such as a food bank opportunity, and going to eat lunch with a student at a local elementary school – sort of like a big brothers big sister type of program. We were restricted to pursuing only one organization to volunteer through, and we had a two week trial period so decide whether or not we would like to continue with the organization for the rest of the semester.
Connecting in the Classroom
I decided to volunteer at the Colegio de Lenguas Extraneras. This was the school where we had the opportunity to teach English to a group of students. I ending up teaching a class of high school aged students, and let me tell you – they taught me a whole lot more about myself than I taught them about English. They asked me all about my culture, my values and my perspective on the world. They challenged me to open up and explore who I am as a person, and how where I grew up in this world has impacted the way I see things. I learned that I immensely value the people around me, that I treasure time well spent and that football makes up a big chunk of what I consider my culture. We discussed everything from college life in the US, to southern food, to my thoughts on our immigration policy. Both silly and serious conversations were had. During my time teaching this class, I found similarities between myself and these young students studying a foreign language, just as I have and still am. I’m not sure how successful as a teacher I was for them, but we sure did have some good laughs. The teacher I worked with, Emilia, was so flexible — she embraced and encouraged me to explore different topics each week.
Sure, at first I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. And yes, it was a little scary leading a classroom of students who stare at you blindly trying desperately to hear every sound that comes out of your mouth, trying to put words and sentences together in their heads. But what were confused faces quickly turned to smiles, and those smiles turned into inquisitive questions. I watched these students blossom and become more confident in just a few short months. Talk about rewarding. This experience helped me feel more connected to Mendoza as a whole. I lived nearby the school, so sometimes I would see my students in the local plaza or walking to the bus stop. We would smile and wave, exchanging greetings in both English and Spanish. Having that connection with local people is something I will never forget. I was able to be a part of these students experience in learning my language and I feel so very luckily to have had this opportunity.
What I Learned As A Teacher
Volunteering has never been a one sided transaction for me. I’ve found I always seem to walk away with more than I had originally anticipated. Being a volunteer with this class of Argentine students was no different. They led me to learn more about myself, question my culture and think hard about the things that make me, me. For this, I am forever grateful. Not only was I able to make a small impact on a few people, but I was able to open up and value my own sense of self. So, although it may be scary, intimidating and challenging at times – always put yourself out there because life truly begins when you step outside of your comfort zone.