Alumni Spotlight: Kristi Girdharry


Kristi is an English professor in Providence, Rhode Island who credits much of her life path today to her volunteering experience through World Teach’s yearlong Costa Rica program in 2008 where she taught kindergarten to 3rd grade English classes at a pilot bilingual school located in Manuel Antonio.

Why did you choose this program?

I want to preface this by saying that I was never the best student. In high school, many of my friends and I could easily do well in classes simply by attending, paying attention, and doing well on the tests. I never truly developed study skills, time management skills, or even great reading/writing processes because I could, fairly easily, bang out my assignments and get good grades.

When I got to college (UMass Amherst), it was a slap in the face—not to mention a “party” school. After a disappointing first semester, I spent the rest of my time working to better my academic self. By senior year, I was taking Honors classes, intensive language training, and working in my university’s Writing Center as I pursued my degree in English.

All of this was great, and I knew I wanted to pursue grad school, but I also felt that the past 4 years had been so selfish: it was all about me; it was all about finding the work-social balance for myself. How could I use these skills to give back (before becoming even more self-absorbed in grad school)?

I was developing teaching skills through tutoring and knew that was a path I’d like to take. I had a decent base of Spanish language training, so it made sense to look for a volunteer opportunity that could mesh these 2 interests. I started by googling opportunities to teach abroad and came across World Teach, which didn’t have the 2-year commitment of the Peace Corps and had other attractive qualities like in-country training and support. I read everything on their website and considered the program cost (I believe it was around $4900 at the time), and I put together my materials to apply.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

World Teach started assisting me before I was even accepted! Part of the application process included an interview with a former WT volunteer, and the time spent in her home talking about the joys and challenges of teaching abroad really helped with my mindset and expectations! Also, before leaving, all of the volunteers in my cohort were in touch via email. I made 2 friends before even leaving – one ended up with the same teaching assignment as me, and the other was “my person” and still a friend to this day!

WT assisted with everything – from visas, setting up bank accounts, and placing us with host families. They provided a month-long training session that had time for language, culture, and teaching. They also provided in-country support (field directors), so if there were ever any issues, you had a direct contact that could physically be there within a day.

The only things I really organized on my own were the major flights – the first to Miami where I met up with the group, and we all flew to CR together; the flight home was at our own discretion as well as the transportation for in-service meetings (a cheap bus ticket).

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

One piece of advice I’d give someone going on this program would be to pay attention to the training material on culture shock/the culture curve. Each person is going to have their moments of “this is wonderful, how could I ever leave?!” and “this sucks, why did I sign up for this?” Understanding how this works and what you need to take care of yourself when the inevitable low moments rise is a great learning experience, and knowing that it will all eventually even out is a great comfort!

In my placement, I saw poverty and racism and the issues tourism can bring when your culture has certain values. I also experienced crime in a way I’d been much sheltered from before. It’s not all sunshine and roses, even though that’s all you’ll see at first. Any company is going to highlight the good things, which does and should outweigh the bad, but just be prepared for the challenges.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

On an average day, my work schedule would be to eat breakfast with my host family, teach in the morning, go home to eat lunch, and sometimes teach in the afternoon. There was A LOT of downtime! This was filled mostly with going to the beach every day. Eventually we made friends who we’d meet up with.

There was also a Spanish-language school nearby, so I exchanged English lessons with the teachers for Spanish lessons, which helped with things like proper grammar that can be hard to pick up when speaking. I spent a lot of time playing with a first-grader (my host sister) and was lucky to live in a town with options for nightlife and such. I read and journaled for “me time” and traveled a bit around the country. The nice thing about my placement was that it is a vacation spot, so there were always opportunities for visitors!

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

I had never lived farther than an hour from home. While I had traveled, I’d never been immersed somewhere like this before, and, in 2008, things like WiFi and smartphones simply weren’t prevalent in CR. My biggest fear was that I’d be missing and missing out on so much at home – family, friends, and a year’s worth of happenings.

At 22, I can see how those fears could be present, but when I got home... things were pretty much the same! It’s a whole year, but it’s also just a year. This program worked especially well because you left after New Year’s and came home before Christmas, so there was plenty of time pre/post to catch up. The older you get, the more you realize how fast a year goes by!

How does a long-term traveling abroad experience impact your life/career today?

Like myself, the majority of the volunteers from my cohort do not have careers in elementary education, nor did they come in with intentions to have this type of career even though that was the teaching assignment for this program. I felt that I wanted to pursue a PhD and didn’t really see how this experience would be applicable, but it didn’t really matter for reasons I’ve already stated.

The skills you learn from living (and teaching) abroad are applicable to so many career paths. And if you can’t see/don’t care about the connections to your work, I genuinely believe these types of experiences will make you a better person!

My experience abroad not only gave me something to write about in my grad school applications, but it gave me diverse ways of looking at the world. It gave me inspiration for working with multilingual students and students who are feeling their own culture shock at the university.

The hard work of being an “immigrant” to a new country, having to learn the language, learning how to manage a classroom and work with people from different cultural backgrounds all impact the professor I am today even though I don’t specifically/explicitly teach or research things related to my year abroad.

Moreover, the relationships you build – whether with your family, community members, or fellow volunteers – will forever impact you. I’ve only been back to CR once, and my familia tica visited the U.S. once, but I know I have a “home” there, and I can’t wait to go back. My Spanish skills are now rusty at best, but sign me up for some rice and beans, salsa dancing, and pura vida :)