In 2017, I decided I wanted to do something different that included traveling and community development. I happened upon the English Opens Doors Program (EODP) after searching through a long list of online options. I chose the EODP over other programs for several reasons. First of all, you don't have to pay to participate in the program. The only fee you cover is your flight. Second, the way they integrate volunteers into the local community ensures that you're not taking a job that could be fulfilled by someone who already lives in the community. You're not replacing a Chilean English teacher; rather, your native English skills are put to use to complement the classes taught by the local teacher. Finally, I wanted a program that seemed like it was well-run, and I wasn't going to just be dropped in a foreign country with limited teaching experience and be told to have at it.
The EODP ticked all of these boxes for me, so I said yes to the offer and headed down to teach for one semester (~4 months). I arrived along with a group of about 70 other volunteers with an average age range of 22-30. Some volunteers have teaching experience, but it's not a requirement because the first week of orientation gives you a crash course on how to teach ESL. Since then, I've taken a variety of other ESL crash courses (and a longer TEFL certification), and I have to say, the week of orientation provided by the EODP has yet to be beat. It's incredibly well-curated, it covers all the information you could need to know, and not only prepares you to teach, but also makes you aware of the extensive support network available to you. The support within the program is super accessible and includes the National Volunteer Center in Santiago, other volunteers, a Regional Representative in your region, and staff in the school in which you're placed.
I was placed in the center of Chile, in the Bernardo O'Higgins region. My host family consisted of a single mom and her daughter. She was really enthusiastic to help me improve my Spanish and do everything possible to make sure I had a great time. I worked in the same school that she taught in, so we would drive to school together in the morning. I actually taught in two schools (something that occasionally happens), so I saw one group of kids for two days a week and another group for the other two (I had Fridays free). I enjoyed working with my co-teacher and getting to know the other staff in the school, but by far the students were the best part of the whole experience. I taught middle school, so my kids were 5th-8th graders, and they just have an energy that can't be beat. Although there are some days when motivation to learn English is low, the kids are generally just so excited that you're there that it doesn't take long for them to come around to a lesson. The most rewarding part of the whole experience is when you hear students use English outside of class. I remember hearing a group of fifth graders yelling directions in English at each other during recess, and it made me so happy to see that I was having an impact.
Outside of school, I had plenty of time to travel around Chile. Chile is a beautiful country that offers a little something for everyone. I went hiking and rock climbing in a number of national parks in my region and in neighboring regions. I traveled to Santiago every once in a while on the weekend to explore restaurants and museums. And, I went on a couple of trips with other volunteers, including wine tastings at vineyards and a longer trip to the island of Chiloé. I've never had such a full social calendar as I did in Chile. And, I think that's because, in my experience, my host mom and Chilean friends were really excited to show me around Chile, so I was constantly invited to things. That, coupled with all the things other volunteers plan, and I always had something to do.
But, time flew between when I arrived in July and the end date of November, and when my return to the United States loomed, I just knew that I had to come back. So, I applied for a second semester and came back to teach again in 2018. I was again impressed by the organization of the program, and I had a similarly great experience the second time around, this time in the surf town of Pichilemu.
If you're looking for an opportunity to go abroad, get involved in a local community, and contribute in a meaningful way, then you should look no further.
What was your funniest moment?
I think whenever you're in a new country and you don't speak the language well, pretty much every day is either full of self-deprecating laughter or tears of frustration, and most days have a good mix of both. There were only a few times that I felt frustrated by my inability to communicate in Chile, and whenever that happened I usually took my frustration as both a sign that I really cared about the people to whom I was expressing myself, and a sign that I probably needed to spend some more time on Duolingo.
Most of the time, my inability to communicate for the first few months was pretty funny. I joined a climbing club in my town that had gym with a bouldering wall (i.e. no ropes, just free climbing) where I would train a few days a week. One of the first times I went to the gym, I struck up a conversation with one of the members with the intention of asking him about the different types of climbing and what they were called in Spanish. So, what I wanted to say in English was:
Is there a different name for the type of climbing we're doing here, climbing without a rope?
My Spanish version of that:
Como se llama el tipo de escalar que estamos haciendo aqui, escalar sin ropa?
The English translation of what I said:
What would you call the climbing that we're doing here, climbing without clothes?
Needless to say, he gave me a funny little side glance and then laughed. I quickly realized that I had said "ropa," which means clothes, when I meant to use the word "cuerda," which actually means rope. I laughed pretty hard at that mistake and he laughed along with me, and I assured him that we do climb with clothes on in the United States.
Things like that happened all the time. But, what made it not feel quite so soul-crushing was how the Chileans always just laughed it off with you. They didn't judge your inability to speak their language; they just liked that you were trying.