Either during summer break, after graduation, or mid-career, there are a variety of API Volunteer placements in Guatemala to explore, depending on your interests and skills. After graduation, Carolyn chose to spend two weeks volunteering in Antigua, Guatemala as a teacher’s assistant. Read on to learn about her first moments, memories in the classroom, and how volunteering abroad compared to her experience studying abroad.
Alumni Connections: Study Abroad Alumna, Carolyn, talks about her experience volunteering in Guatemala
When you decided you wanted to do a short-term abroad program, how was the process of making the decision to volunteer, and in Guatemala?
I knew I wanted to do a volunteer placement and that I had about a two-week span to do that. As a study abroad alumna, I spoke to API about doing one of their volunteer programs and I was looking to do something different from my first experience in Spain. I had a bit of experience in Costa Rica in high school and knew I wanted to go back to Latin America, I just didn’t know exactly where. The Guatemala placement interested me because it offered both the opportunity to volunteer and take private Spanish classes at the same time.
Can you take yourself back to your first moments in Guatemala?
I remember it very vividly. I did not have a phone, or any way to communicate. It had been a while since I had traveled abroad, specifically to Latin America, so I was there in the airport with this piece of paper telling me what to do when I arrived and looking around for a man named Hector, who was supposed to pick me up. There were a lot of people coming up to me offering their cell phones to make a call and trying to help me figure it out. Hector showed up and he was in this big van. It was late at night when I arrived. I remember he was trying to help me stay awake while driving me to my host family by asking me about my story, while playing reggaeton music the whole way. It was a great welcome to the country.
What was your main role in your placement?
I did a teaching volunteer placement in Guatemala. I was a Spanish major in college and was thinking about teaching as a career option for me, so I was looking for experience in the classroom. I didn’t have a ton of expectations in terms of what I was going to be doing, though I was really happy to have been placed in a 2nd grade classroom. I would volunteer in the mornings and take Spanish classes in the afternoons. In the classroom, I was more of a teacher’s assistant, so I didn’t actually plan the lessons, but I would work one-on-one with the students during reading, writing and conversation assignments.
One of my favorite class memories was when we were doing a lesson on adjectives and we brought everyone to the playground area. The students were told they had to build a person and use any material they could find in the classroom to do so. Students brought a desk out and used a mop for their hair and they created these stick figures; they were so creative and imaginative. They then went back to the classroom and described their person on paper, using adjectives.
Teaching has always been on the table for me long-term and it was just a glimpse into that. It’s difficult working with such young kids. They need a lot of direction, and I thought the teacher did a great job of giving them opportunities to express themselves and harvesting that into educational lessons, which was a good observation I was able to make.
How would you compare visiting a community abroad for travel and this kind of experience?
I have been in Costa Rica and was there for about two-weeks. This is different because you have more structure; you have a schedule every day for the mornings and afternoons. When I am in vacation mode, my mentality is more to go with the flow and adventure-focused, and when I am volunteering I have certain goals in mind. I was still able to explore the region over the weekends, but it’s not this crazy adventure every single day. Your days are planned for you, and you encounter little meaningful moments where you’re helping a student read or speaking with a woman about how she’s going to use what she learned in a nutrition seminar offered by the organization to cook her family dinner.
In such a short amount of time, I was able to make lasting connections with people I met and worked with there. I am still in contact with the woman who gave me lessons and the local teacher I assisted in the school. When you’re traveling, you kind of just roam in your own little bubble. This was an opportunity for me to break passed that and get to know the locals.
How would you compare studying abroad to a volunteer experience?
One of the main differences is that the volunteer placement is really independent. You have to be ok with being on your own in way. Though I met other people and volunteers while I was there, you’re in charge of designing your own social life, versus having this cohort of API students who are all juniors in college and all studying abroad for a semester. You may be the only API participant who gets there on that day and staying there for that amount of time. On the study abroad programs, you’re typically arriving as a group to the country. It’s also different because I wasn’t getting university credit for the volunteering; I feel that I loved the experience as much as I did because I put so much into it, for me, not for credit.
What are you doing now?
I am working for API as a Program Coordinator for Study Abroad for Latin America and a few of our sites in Spain. I studied in Spain with API, and then did the volunteer work in Guatemala after I graduated and I spent some time recruiting students for Study Abroad in New England. I then relocated in Texas in 2015, and in July of 2015 I started with my current portfolio. It has been really interesting to see the whole process that I lived from the other side.
If you could use one word or phrase to describe your experience, what would it be?
I would say “eye-opening”; to see a drastically different way of life that was lived by the locals in Antigua.