For many volunteers, moving to Colombia to teach English is a leap of faith into the unknown. Volunteers Colombia (VC) is an NGO that brings volunteers from all over the world to teach English to Colombian students in the hopes of providing them better opportunities for the future. Most of the volunteers work in government funded vocation schools called SENA, which is free for the students. Every volunteer teacher has their own reason for participating, but not always a clear path in mind for where the adventure might take them afterwards. This can be both exhilarating and quite daunting, but the good news is that participating in a program like VC’s can open up all kinds of opportunities for the future! We reached out to a few past volunteers to see where their experience in the program has led them, and they have some interesting journeys to share…
Kerry O'Brien, 2014 SENA Volunteacher, Barranquilla: I first arrived to Bogotá in January 2014 for two weeks of English teacher training with Volunteers Colombia. Today, over a year and a half later, Bogotá is where I live and work as the Educational Adviser at Fulbright Colombia. In my current role, I use many skills that I strengthened during my year as an English teacher at SENA in Barranquilla. These skills include public speaking, intercultural communication, problem solving, and educational advising – which requires an understanding of both the Colombian and US educational systems. One of my favorite parts about continuing to live in Colombia is keeping in touch with my students from last year. Since they are studying to be Tecnólogos in Hotel Management, many of them are even coming to Bogotá for their internships! I learned just as much from my students as they did from me, and my experience with Volunteers Colombia was enriching both personally and professionally.
Pamela Madsen, 2013 WorldTeach and 2014 SENA Volunteacher, Medellín: I left Volunteers Colombia in June 2014 after 6 months of service. When I returned, I relocated to the Twin Cities where I served a year with City of Lakes AmeriCorps as a literacy tutor for long term English learners at a Minneapolis middle school. I also began working towards my teaching license and Masters of Arts in ESL at Hamline University. In addition to my service with AmeriCorps, I volunteered as an ESL teacher at Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio and as an assistant ESL teacher at the Minneapolis Public Schools Adult Education Center. Serving with Volunteers Colombia confirmed that teaching English was a career I wanted to pursue and made me a much more confident teacher by helping me develop my teaching skills in my classes with the Colombian students. In addition, I am able to constantly draw upon my experiences at SENA in my graduate courses, connecting my practical knowledge with the theoretical knowledge being covered in class.
Travis Gervais, 2013 WorldTeach Isla Barú and 2014 SENA Volunteacher Manizales: My name is Travis Gervais and I originally came to Colombia with WorldTeach in 2013 to teach on the island of Baru. I then participated in the Volunteers Colombia program in January 2014. Initially I was only going to teach for 6 months in Manizales, but that quickly turned in to a year. And now, more than a year and a half later I’m still in Colombia working as a Regional Coordinator for English Teaching Fellowship Program with Heart for Change, another Colombian Volunteer Program that is partnered with VC. My experience with Volunteers Colombia taught me many of the necessary skills that I use in my job on a daily basis. It taught me how to communicate in a cross-cultural environment. It taught me how to be flexible and how to adapt to constantly changing situations. But most importantly it taught me how to follow my passion.
Robbie Thomas, 2014 SENA Volunteacher, Medellín: I originally came to Colombia to perfect my Spanish and to fully immerse myself in a different country and culture. While I had always considered teaching English a good opportunity for personal development, my professional interests lie in international trade and commerce. About half way through my year with VC, I realized that due the improving security and strong economy tied closely to the United States, Colombia was indeed a relevant place to pursue my professional career. Feeling up to an extra challenge, I enrolled in an import-export class at a local university in Medellín. By keeping my eyes and ears open I came into contact with an American man who wanted to start exporting panela (a natural cane sugar produced in Colombia). At the end of my year with VC I started working for him part-time, and eight months later he made me a partner in the business. I now manage all of our operations in Colombia while he is in the States focusing on the sales/commercialization side of our business. During my time in Colombia working with VC I created relationships with my coworkers and students that helped me practice my Spanish and eventually brought me to a fluent level. This has allowed me to effectively communicate with all relevant parties surrounding our business. It also taught me many of the cultural expectations and subtleties that have allowed me to hire and manage a team of workers. I’m writing this from our packaging facility in Rionegro, just outside of Medellin. We’re currently half way through the production of our first shipment of final product to the States. Look for our product on the shelves of natural food stores and cafes in the coming months!