Thursday, August 23, 2012

A long winded reflection on how four or five weeks can change your life

Yesterday, I very happily accepted a semester of teaching in my university's ESL program this fall, a result of my success working in their summer exchange program for a short but exciting four weeks. Having been lucky enough to be offered once again the title of adjunct faculty along with two courses this fall, I've been thinking a lot about my time in the summer and what it meant to be working in this program, both for the students and for  myself.

Four weeks isn't much, but it's definitely changed my point of view - and I'm betting the students have been affected as well.

My students at the farewell dinner
Some of my summer students at the farewell dinner doing what they do best - being adorable.
I can guess how important the program was for the students, even if it was such a very short time, because of a few things. First of all, anyone who cries as much as many of my students did at the farewell dinner isn't putting on a show (or they should just quit their day job and get into acting right now so they can start co-starring with beautiful actors like Brad Pitt before he gets too old). It's pretty much assumed studying abroad will build new attachments and emotional experiences, but I am talking about the kind of crying where saying goodbye becomes sobbing and a chain reaction of wails start and pretty soon everyone is sitting in their own salty puddle of tears. And believe me, I am not mocking them. Their sentimentality took me back to my own experience studying abroad in the summer when I was in the exact same position, another reason I can bet this program has affected at least a handful of these students for the rest of their lives.

Anyone who knows me also knows of my love for Spain, in particular Madrid. Some might call it an annoying obsession, and by that I mean most of my college friends have the instinctive urge to scream as soon as they hear mention of anything to do with Spain because for four years I didn't stop talking about it.


I mean, look, I'm still talking about it now.

Most know that my passion began just over six years ago when I set off for a five week summer study abroad program with about sixty students I didn't know, a freshman level of Spanish and a first timer abroad excitement that couldn't be matched. Five weeks, much like this same program I taught in, that many students spent with their American counterparts giving Americans the rep they've earned in most European countries, criticizing the Spaniards for their lack of English, their staring, their horrible service in restaurants, etc. etc.

No judgement or anything, but it wasn't really my style - nor that of the handful of close, life long friends I made on that trip.

Cierra and I
One of my best friends and I - we can't seem to stop having laughter filled adventures, even now :)
Sure my little group partied just like most college aged Americans, or lets face it, foreigners do in a foreign country. But we made it our business to find and befriend Spaniards, to enjoy each moment without complaint or restraint, to make the most of every bit of our study abroad experience - even if that meant we slept less than two hours each night, got lost and missed trains, slept in crazy hostels or on the floors of friends' flats, ate olives and potato chips for dinner, skinny dipped for the heck of it, or walked six hours just to get to our beds. I'm sure that the program was great for everyone else, but for us, it was life changing.

After five weeks in Spain, I discovered my ultimate passion - travel and language. I found myself constantly working towards the same attitude I had during that time, the ability to let the bad just roll off my shoulders- whether it was losing all my luggage or leaving important tickets six hours away on my desk in Madrid. I understood what it meant to find friendships that were mutual, deep and true. Not only did I meet some American girls who have been and will be important in my life forever, but we found Spanish friends that have had a huge impact on us as well - one of us even married a Spaniard!

Hasta siempre.
A day of packing and tears. Hasta siempre.
During my last week in Spain, I was exactly like my students at the farewell dinner this summer. I cried, more than once, not ready to return to my life in the US. And not the pretty graceful kind of one tear rolls down the cheek crying, I mean the what-am-I-gonna-do-without-my-jamon-and-Spanish-loves kind of snotty sobbing. At our goodbye dinner, I read a short piece I wrote about the experience, barely able to get through it as the tears of my friends, American and English, our teachers and the staff kept rolling. I ended with this little bit, something I keep with me at all times:

"This is a toast to the plans that fall through, to embracing the unexpected, to learning there are a million possibilities out there, and to one day, week, or month changing your life. This is a toast to living each moment as your last and to truly good friends you are lucky to have in a foreign country. Here is to Spain."

No time or event or one person has affected me as much as those five weeks, those experiences and those people.

But something I never thought about before, was the people who made it possible. Sure, I thanked my teachers and the staff at that time, giving them hugs and sharing tears, but it never really hit me until now what an impact they had on the success of that program and its affect on me. My teachers there became my friends. They didn't care if I was late, hungover or missed class, except for some minor teasing and a slap on the wrist. We kept them up at all hours of the night and they laughed with us the next morning. My teachers and the staff introduced us to our Spanish friends, took us on tours and gave us starting points for exploring, kept us safe while also telling us which bars would be fun or taking us salsa dancing. Heck, I'm pretty sure one of the guides rigged a photography competition so that I would win the second place prize (not the first), a dinner at a restaurant I had been dieing to go to but couldn't afford.

Man in wheelchair watches breakdancers.
The winning photo. Notice the man in the wheelchair, the element that helped me win with this chance shot.
And now, I've had the chance to be that person (not that I'm rigging competitions or anything). In a program just like the one that changed my life I got to be the teacher this time and not just watch as perhaps a young person's life was changed by their own study abroad experience, but become a part of it. I got to teach English in a stress free fun way that helped students enjoy their time more easily and meet my American (well American, Scottish and Ecuadorian) friends. I got to explore new cities, shop and eat with these enthusiastic and eager students. I got to have girl talk, paddle board, play basketball and rock climb with them - and none of this was because I had to, but because it was fun.

Thinking about it, maybe these students won't feel the exact same way I did about my time in Spain. But the opportunity to teach in an exchange program once again this fall thrills me, because its just another opportunity to help create that experience for these students once again. Knowing this at the beginning, remembering how affecting an exchange program can be, I think I will be an even better ESL teacher as well as a better part of the program, so maybe in six years a student will think back to the most important time of their life and not only remember their crazy adventures and friends, but also remember me.

At the beach.
It's a hard job, but someone's gotta do it. I'll miss these guys, but I'm looking forward to meeting my next group!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Warming up that writing muscle, waking up my brain.

I need a little warming up on this whole blog thing.

It has been a while since I've written anything that wasn't for my graduate program or Red Karaoke that I was willing to let people see. I mean, I did one post in my sibling blog project and I actually made a painting a few weeks ago for my friend's art show (which someone actually bought to my disbelief) but in over 365 days, such limited creative output is just not enough. The writing has just not been happening, though not because I didn't want it to, of course...

People who know me, know that I've enjoyed writing for a very long time. In high school I used to write unfinished comic book scripts, bad poetry, and in those online diaries that slowly were overtaken by the internet sensation that is the blog. In college I wrote more unfinished stories, bad poetry and kept more than one blog project going, whether it was about studying abroad or just life in general. Even after college I kept several blogs, one about my life in Washington and another cleverly titled blog about my fashion passion. But with the onset of my graduate program last summer, a hefty course load of thirteen graduate level classes in ten weeks and an exciting yet relentless year of student teaching led me to set aside writing for fun - at least for the time being.

Now, a little over one year later, the finish line for my Masters in Teaching is near, and I will hopefully be doing enough writing to defend my thesis by December. The thing is, it seems like every day over the last many months I've felt like writing something for myself - whether its about a rock climbing adventure, a debate between my sister and I, something new, exciting or important to me, or some silly fashion thing I happen to love. And though my plate may be very full this fall with classes, research, teaching and volunteering on top of climbing and modeling, I feel like writing is my way to both reflect on all of these things in a really meaningful manner, and one of the few ways I have to express myself that I feel really damn good about.

And let's face it, when you feel really damn good about a particular way of expressing yourself, you should definitely find a way to do more of it.

Even if its miming. Though mimes are scary. But still.

So, I've started up yet another blog project (after carefully saving and deleting my old works). It doesn't really have a theme (well, besides "me") but it will be about all that stuff I've already mentioned (besides miming) - climbing, teaching, learning, debating, fashioning, eating, adventuring, friending - whatever. Though I enjoy a good blog with a specific purpose like many of those you'll find in my link list to the right (great selection of climbing, cooking, soccer, art and more stuffs over there), I'm just too scattered to write about one thing all of the time - which may be why I've never kept up with one of those other blog projects before.

I guess we'll see how it goes this time. Welcome to my little slice of the internet.