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!

1 comment:

  1. Gorgeous reflection, Rachel. I can definitely identify with much of what you are expressing, and you have also allowed me to realize something new about myself as well (just like a good teacher should!) You are now exploring the side of ESL and travel abroad that you worked beside in the past, but now get to experience firsthand. You are a changling, crossing the wispy lines between student and teacher. Now I too am treading across that line as I travel to Chile in the fall to work for the program that meant so much to me. I am going to experience the other half of what this organization is- not from a student perspective, but from a staff member's. I'm recognizing that even my work with the Office of Sustainability this year allowed me to transcend these boundaries, and I think it is a tribute to the open minds and broad hearts you and I both possess. To really want to see something from the other side; to pick up a two-dimensional object and find the third. I think this will be a trend for the both of us, and shall we forever transcend those boundaries. <3