Alumni Spotlight: Sarah OToole

Sarah is a Software Engineer from Scotland. In 2014 she followed her husband to Singapore and took the opportunity to have a break from her career. It was there she started volunteering as a writer and a museum tour guide. Two years later they relocated again, this time to West Africa, and Sarah decided that teaching English was where she wanted to dedicate her time.

Volunteering in Cusco

Why did you pick this program?

I recently completed my TEFL training online and I do some volunteer teaching where I live in West Africa. When some plans with friends started to form to walk the Inca Trail, I decided that I would fly to Peru a week early to do some volunteer teaching. I chose IVHQ after searching the internet and reading many different reviews. This was the first time I had volunteered under this style of package, and it's ideal for a short volunteering trip. IVHQ is very open about where the money you pay goes and all the information is available on their website, plus their fees are very reasonable. Their support was great from start to finish. I also really liked their preparation videos, there is nothing more important than setting expectations. Their partner company on the ground in Cusco was excellent, providing airport pickup, orientation and being around for any questions I had, whether they were related to my volunteering or questions about how to take local buses to the tourist sights.

What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?

Think carefully about what inspires you. How do you want to give back to the local community and what role would you excel at? Volunteering isn't about you, it's about what you can give, any benefits you gain are simply an added bonus. So many people let their anxieties and fear of the unknown stop them trying something, but with the right preparation and thought you can push those fears aside and reap the rewards. The other huge bonus to volunteering is the brilliant people you meet, whether that be locals or other volunteers.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Be Prepared! Read up on what the posting involves and consider looking at some ESL materials online before your trip, or even complete a TEFL course. Be Prepared to teach a range of ages with a range of English ability. Be prepared to teach at any time of day, my posting involved evening classes. Be Prepared for challenges and for moments of feeling out of your comfort zone, but of course never forget, with challenge, comes reward!

What's your favorite story to tell about your time abroad?

I was teaching a fairly advanced adult English class. The first night had got off to a bumpy start and I felt like I really needed to work hard to win over my pupils. Their body language told me I had some work to do to win them over, and so I tried very hard to better prepare the lessons that followed. On the third night my most advanced student (and also the hardest to please) used a new vocabulary word to tell me that he could 'rely' on me to teach him English. This moment, knowing that I had won him over, and the sentence he chose was the highlight of my week!

How safe is Cusco?

This was something I was worried about before arriving, but Cusco is not an unsafe city. There are things to be aware of (which were covered in my volunteer orientation), such as pick pockets in crowed areas. However, with some common sense there is really nothing to worry about. I spent many days walking around Cusco on my own and never felt intimidated. After 8pm I used local taxis to get around or, once friends arrived we walked in a group.