Alumni Spotlight: Andrea Higgins

Andrea Higgins is 23 years old and from Wilmington, Delaware. She attended school at LIM College in New York City and is currently working at a summer camp. She enjoys traveling, experiencing new cultures, learning Italian, volunteering, and indulging in things relating to fashion.

Why did you decide to enroll with Greenheart Travel in Italy?

My host family and I having dinner in Turin with a few of their friends

Andrea: Last summer I traveled to Italy for the first time and fell completely in love with the culture. I was drawn to the beauty of its various landscapes, its natives, its language, and of course its food!

The two weeks that I had spent in Italy over the summer didn't satisfy my curiosity about the country or its culture. I felt I needed to visit there again so I could learn more, but I didn't want to just go there for another vacation.

I wanted to actually live there and work so that way I could fully immerse myself in the culture, learn the language, and build new relationships. After researching various opportunities to work abroad in Italy, the Greenheart Travel Teach in Italy program seemed the most interesting to me.

When I applied for the program, it was still fairly new, so I had to rely on reviews from other volunteer programs with Greenheart.

Out of all of the programs that I researched, Greenheart had the most reliable and helpful reviews and they had a strong online community via Facebook, which legitimized the organization. In addition to great reviews and having a great sense of community, Greenheart’s program is based in Piedmont, a region not only rich with history and culture, but also the region from which Nutella was born.

For those who know me best, they will all tell you Nutella is my biggest addiction, so this definitely made teaching abroad in Piedmont even more appealing.

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer teacher.

Andrea: Although I lived in San Benigno, I taught in Bosconero at a scuola media. My host mother was my co-teacher so we drove to and from school together. We went to work Monday-Friday (depending on the day, I worked anywhere from 2 hours to 5 hours).

There were about 110 students (all between the ages of 11 and 13) split into 6 classes (2 for each grade level). On most days I would assist my host mother with her lessons. We would go over rules of grammar, pronunciation, reading comprehension, and for the students in their final year of scuola media, we would do activities to prepare them for their Key English Test.

In addition to my host mother’s lessons that were required by the ministry of education, I also had the opportunity to plan and do my own lessons relating to the difference between British and American English, American pop culture, American history, American schooling, American geography, and American culture and traditions.

The great thing about this program is that I actually had time to myself when I was not teaching. I usually used this time to study Italian, hang out with my host family, meet up with other Greenheart volunteers in Turin, and on the weekends I typically traveled to other cities in Italy or nearby countries like France and Switzerland.

Was it difficult to navigate around language barriers?

Greenheart volunteers during one of our weekend outings in Turin

Andrea: I wouldn't say it was too difficult to navigate through language barriers because people were always willing to try to communicate in English to me, and if they couldn't they would play a game of charades until I finally understood what they were trying to tell me.

At home my host mother and sister were both fluent in English so there were no barriers there, but my host father only knew a bit of English. Despite this, he did try to communicate with me in English when he could and I also tried to communicate to him in Italian as well.

At school many students were pretty good in English, but there were some who had difficulty. In these situations my host mother would translate or we would choose another student who could translate.

When I was traveling without my host family or one of my Italian friends I had to rely a lot on the knowledge of Italian that I knew before coming to Italy as well as the knowledge I had picked up from studying and immersing myself in the culture. Midway through my experience my Italian did get better and for the most part I could understand what was being said to me and I could at least communicate back in broken Italian.

Tell me about one person you met.

Me and my students baking over 200 chocolate chip cookies for the entire school!

Andrea: The person who made Italy feel most like home to me was my host mother and co-teacher, Marilena.

There were things she did that may have seemed simple to her, but meant the world to me, like inviting me to go out with her and her friends for coffee (although I hated coffee haha).

She always made it a point to ask me if I understood what was being said when the people around us would speak in Italian (and if I didn’t understand she would translate).

She did things like asking what I wanted when she went grocery shopping and ensuring that my laundry was done.

If I ever needed to be picked up late from the train station, she would arrange for it to happen (even if it meant picking me up from the next town over because I fell asleep on the train and missed my stop). Once I got sick and she made an appointment for me and cleared her schedule so she could drive me to my appointment.

She never treated me like a stranger in her home or in her classroom, if anything she always strived to make me feel like a member of her family. She is one of the many reasons why I will always cherish this experience.

What was the best moment of the entire trip?

Andrea: The best moment of my trip was my first day teaching. My host mother, my students, and the other teachers at the school orchestrated a surprise welcome party for me.

A small band ensemble played the Star Spangled Banner and another piece they had put together, my first year English students performed a song that they had wrote and composed all by themselves for me, and other students made homemade decorations, cookies, and cupcakes.

At the end of their performances, the students presented me with a bouquet of roses and a homemade card that they all signed. When I think about my time in Italy, I always think about this moment because I was cloud 9 and remained on cloud 9 for the next three months.

The fact that everyone went through all this effort to make me feel welcome made me feel really appreciated, and it was a feeling that I needed to feel at that moment in my life. This moment reiterated my choice to volunteer in Italy and it motivated me to work really hard for the next three months to show my students and my co-teachers how much I appreciated them too.