Katie Puchalski

Katie Puchalski is a Chicago-native who worked in Coronel, Chile from April-November 2013. She is currently a second year master’s student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. Upon graduation, Katie hopes to pursue a career revolving around positive youth development and education.

Why did you decide to teach abroad with English Opens Doors in Chile?

chile, teach abroad

Katie: I decided to teach abroad with English Opens Doors in Chile, because I had recently graduated from college and knew that I wanted to gain international work experience and build my resume for graduate school.

As someone who was looking at graduate programs in social work, the program looked like it would provide me with the experiences I was looking for in language and culture immersion, working with Latino youth, working in a low-income community, working with school improvement initiatives and building skills in curriculum and program development.

I was also looking forward to taking on a leadership role inside of the classroom. English Opens Doors was the only program I came across that really allowed their volunteer teachers to be so independent, and that was very important to me as a recent college graduate. Additionally, I had never been to Chile, or even to South America, so that was exciting in and of itself as someone who loves to travel, learn about new places, and meet new people.

What made this teach abroad experience unique and special?

Katie: My experience in Chile was unlike any experience I’d ever had living abroad before. Whenever I’m asked about my favorite part of living and working in Chile, or what made my experience so special, I always answer the same way—los chilenos! I was really the only foreigner where I was living, and everyone—from my students, to my coworkers, my friends, even people at the grocery store and or on the bus—always made me feel welcome, accepted, and not so far away from home. I was able to make so many wonderful friends during my time there. Even though I came to Chile without knowing a soul, I left feeling like I was leaving behind family. I know I made connections that will last a lifetime.

Another thing that made the experience unique and special was how much I was able to improve my Spanish. I was bilingual before coming to Chile, but Chileans speak very rapidly and use a lot of idioms, which always kept me on my toes. I like to say that Chileans speak “advanced Spanish” because the learning curve is very steep. “Chilean Spanish” definitely made my experience unique and I am thrilled with the improvements I’ve made in my speech and comprehension after my teach abroad experience.

Chile itself is unique and special. Because it is such a long, skinny country bordering both the ocean and mountains, you are able to encounter essentially every landscape and climate imaginable. The beauty one is able to witness within its borders is unfathomable.

Finally, drawing from what I previously mentioned about why I decided to teach abroad with English Opens Doors, my role as a teacher was unique and special, because I was able to take on so many responsibilities, therefore building essential knowledge and skills while feeling like I was making a positive difference in the lives of my students and in my school community.

How has this experience impacted your future? (Personally, professionally, academically, etc.)

chile, beach

Katie: This experience has impacted my future in many ways. All of the beautiful connections I was able to make while in Chile have left an imprint on my heart.

My Chilean friends mean the world to me, and I know I am a different person—a better person—having met them. During my time as an English Opens Doors I met the love of my life, which has dramatically changed my life’s course and future plans for the better.

My experience with English Opens Doors volunteer reaffirmed by desire to pursue a career that involved two of my passions: education and youth development. However, I knew I needed to further my education to be able to do the kind of work I wanted to pursue.

I am currently a master’s student at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration—one of the top three schools of social work in the nation. I know that my experience as an English Opens Doors volunteer made me a more desirable candidate for my master's program and will continue to help me stand out once I graduate and pursue a professional career.

What is one piece of advice you would offer someone considering teaching abroad in Chile?

Katie: One piece of advice I would offer to someone considering teaching abroad in Chile is to be flexible. Before even beginning the program, I had to learn to be flexible as far as where I would be placed in Chile. That lesson continued to shape my work throughout my time as an English Opens Doors volunteer. The high school where I worked was far from a perfect environment. At the beginning, I was overwhelmed and frustrated because of the many obstacles I encountered in my work that seemed to impede my students from learning and prevent me from fulfilling my duties as their teacher. Plans and schedules constantly change—usually without notice. I had to to adapt and be flexible in response to those changes in order to maximize my time as an English Opens Doors volunteer.

An extra piece of advice I would give is to pack a lot of warm clothes—think multiple layers. Being from Chicago, I’ve experienced some brutally cold winters, but the winters are tolerable because of widespread central heating. My winter in Chile was much milder than what I am used to, but I had a much more difficult time staying warm, because heating isn’t really “a thing.” Seeing the average winter temperature before I left, I packed clothes that I would wear in the fall in Chicago, but I should have brought warmer clothes, since indoor temperatures and outdoor temperatures can be essentially the same. I rarely removed my winter coat, even to teach! Bundle up!