Alumni Spotlight: Ben Cooper


Ben comes from Washington, D.C., after his first year of teaching! Wanting to travel, gain new experiences, and continue his love of education, he tried something out of his comfort (and language!) zone.

Why did you choose this program?

My friend, Marie, actually did this program a few months prior to me. We were in the same education program in college, except she had done primary, and I had done secondary. I always wanted to teach abroad, but was a little apprehensive about it. I actually did not get the courage to actually try to get serious about this new type of journey, until I saw how much fun Marie had with her own. Talking to her about this experience really calmed my nerves.

I was torn between here and Thailand (which I still want to go to), but I have never really heard about people going to Panama (which is a mistake for them, which I quickly learned), so I figured I would start my travels off the beaten path!

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

I worked with the lovely Saskia; and she was/is amazing! She was with me every step of the way (and then after). I actually worked with her initially for Thailand, but we gelled so well together, we continued our relationship.

She helped me make a payment plan, answer questions I had, and even shared her own experiences in Thailand! I think what actually helped was our getting personal with each other. Knowing that I was talking to a real person with a real life and story really got me comfortable with the whole situation. She really gave 24/7 support. I never felt alone either! She checked in with me constantly just for my well being, and that goes along way!

The only thing I had to organize myself were weekend trips. Accommodation, food, and transportation to and from the airport was included. It was much easier than I imagined.

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

Be open. Get out of your comfort zone and travel because you will never know what you will stumble upon. I met so many people whilst traveling. I did not have anyone with me during the program until two weeks in, but that did not matter. Jose (founder) was so friendly, and because it was just us two in the house for two weeks, we got really close.

I did not get really comfortable with the country until I traveled. I know it is cliché, but you learn a lot about yourself when traveling (especially alone). Panama will always be special to me because of all the experiences. Pedasi really became my home (I actually got homesick for the town when I went to other places).

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

Tuesday-Thursday: The mornings were more relaxed for me. I would wake up to a wonderful and delicious home-cooked breakfast. I would then either bike to the beach, watch Netflix/read, or work on class for the afternoon until lunch at 1. Then I would pick up some of the students for class at 3.30. That is one of the favorite times of the day for me: biking through town to pick up and drop off the kids. That short bike ride through town just added to that sense of belonging.

Then, after class, I would run to the beach and jump in the ocean to cool off before dinner at 7. Little routines like this made everything more real and to me. This was another thing I constantly looked forward to each day. It was so peaceful: running through the country side. Jumping into a warm ocean did not hurt either! The beach was usually desolate--which I was surprised about.

After an amazing dinner, I just relaxed for the rest of the night.

Friday-Monday, I usually traveled :)

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 did not have any real fears going in, actually. I just did not know what to expect, and thus, had no real expectations--I think that was what made everything better: going in with a clear, open mind!

The only real apprehension I guess I really had was meeting people and the language barrier (which I think is normal). I was not sure how I was going to meet people during my stay because I was by myself in the volunteer house--however, that did not matter. I learned to accept my own company, and it was quite freeing not to worry about anyone else's enjoyment except your own. I just focused on myself. Plus, I met people in hostels when I traveled.

Jose really helped with language. He helped translate when needed, and his English is practically fluent anyhow, so I had no trouble speaking with him. I also picked up the language a little bit during my stay, so by the end, I could communicate (not very well) with other people on my own! Even if I had trouble, people in Panama were very helpful and got me where I needed to go!