Alumni Spotlight: Kirsten Harris

Kirsten is an English teacher living in Québec, Canada, but is a native of Ohio. After re-igniting her passion for travel three years ago, she has been using her summer and winter breaks to combine travel with volunteer teaching opportunities. Between working, you’ll find her either traveling or making plans for the next adventure!

volunteer and elephant

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Kirsten: I had the opportunity work at an elementary school while in Jaipur, India. The classes were in the morning, so after a quick breakfast, transport by tuk-tuk was provided by the program, we’d arrive a little before 9:00 to greet & welcome the kids. Catching up with the kids before classes was really a special time. They were always glad to see us and we could talk, run around and play with them, and generally hang out before classes.

Each volunteer was responsible for a few kids divided by age/grade level. I had the 6-8 year olds and had English class and then math. English class was pretty standard with lessons on grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary. The structure is a lot of repetition and building on past lessons. But first we always checked the homework. I teach at a small college in Canada, and I’ve never seen kids so excited about homework! They really were proud to show in their notebooks the little assignments they had done. And I was gratified to see progress and such enthusiasm.

After English class, the kids got a break where most started off by doing little jobs around the school and then they got to have a real “recess.” This was also a time for the volunteers to run around with them in the little courtyard and get to know them more. Math class was the last period of the day. The kids did really great with math and were really eager. And before you know it, it was noon, school was finished and we were on our way back to the volunteer accommodations.

Indian girl

Ten years from now, what's the one thing you think you'll remember from the trip?

Kirsten: I think I’ll remember quite a few things. First, it’s something that I’ve thought about over the past year: the resilience and hope of the kids there. They live in such poverty and seem to have nothing to hope for, but still they are playful, energetic, appreciative, happy, enthusiastic, and all that kids should be. I was/am happy that I could be a part of something that helps them.

Second, I will always remember the splendour of India (and I’m sure before 10 years, I will return) that I saw. It’s a beautiful, chaotic, fascinating, colourful, incredible place. I was privileged to see some of the country’s precious sites, and as I said, I will return. Third, I had my first, up close and personal experience with elephants in India. Unforgettable.

Has your worldview changed as a result of your trip?

Kirsten: I’ve always been fascinated with other cultures and have had a passion for travel, but I would say that my worldview has changed some from this trip. India was my second volunteer travel opportunity, in between Albania and Ghana. So I think from my experience in Albania, I learned that there are many ways to do things in this world and that we all need each other.

That belief or view was further enhanced by my trip to India. There were challenges in understanding how they do things there since it’s so different from my country and upbringing, but it was also a learning experience. Because ultimately, things worked out and there was such collaboration and unseen order amidst the seeming chaos. So we are all connected by our humanness and we need understanding and collaboration.

indian fountain

What was the most interesting cultural difference you encountered?

Kirsten: Wow…there are so many cultural differences! OK…not in any particular order of importance, here are a few. First, from the moment I arrived I saw how colourful and alive everything is: painted and decorated trucks and busses, what people were wearing, adorned little shrines. It was just wonderful! Then, I guess traffic! I lived in New York City for a few years, but I had never seen anything like the traffic in India!! Of course, in New York, there aren’t cows on the road, either. But everyone seems to manage because I never saw any accidents while I was there. They are always beeping their horns, not in an aggressive way, just to let other drivers know they are there.

Which leads me to my next difference: sounds. There never seemed to be a quiet moment, except up on the roof of the volunteer accommodations. But the lack of quiet was beautiful, too. There were sounds of music, at times sounds of prayer, horns, dogs, children laughing and playing, everything was open for all to hear. Then, I can’t forget kites…one of the best things (although I missed the kite festival) was hanging out on the roof in the afternoons after volunteering and seeing kites flying all over the city.

Where would you most like to travel to next?

Kirsten: I have a pretty long list, but next summer during my break I would like to volunteer in Bangladesh. Love Volunteers has a great program there and I’m definitely fascinated with that part of the world.