One key lesson I have taken away from my first two years in the Pioneer Leadership Program is that the greatest leaders are able to make the most out of what is given to them. Some of the best examples of what I would consider leadership occurred when someone was faced with the unexpected but still had the capacity to be flexible and follow through on their promises. This lesson became particularly valuable when I embarked for 6 weeks on an internship program in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
My experience was eye-opening to say the least, but it certainly wasn’t what I had anticipated. I signed up to teach English in a Jewish primary school and live with a host family in the city. It seemed like everything would be sorted out as such until the day I arrived and was informed I would be staying in a packed hostel and working at a different location. My time was soon spent in a town right outside of Buenos Aires called José León Suárez. In a building with a dreary exterior, grated doors, and stray dogs patiently waiting outside for a savory handout, I worked at an organization called Educar y Crecer (to teach and to grow). The goal of the organization is to support vulnerable students who struggle in school through help with homework as well as additional language and math classes four times a week.
The interior of the building was wonderfully colorful but in disrepair. The first day I entered the space, the other volunteers and I looked around with puzzled expressions displayed on our sleep deprived faces as we weren’t sure how such a tiny area could accommodate so many children. Each day the students would file in and greet each teacher in typical Argentine fashion, a kiss on the cheek. During my first few days at work, this greeting was often the extent that I connected with the students. These children hardly knew a word of English which made the language barrier a greater challenge than I anticipated. My broken Spanish was often met with either a laugh or sigh before the student turned to another teacher who could better understanding their inquiries. I was initially concerned that I would never be able to have that positive impact I imagined as any meaningful connection with the students seemed elusive. After a bumpy beginning, the other interns and I were finally able to find our way to contribute.
This was my first time teaching, and you can see the subject that day was animals.
One of the initial conversations myself and another volunteer had with our director dealt with what our contributions would be considering our lack of Spanish fluency and understanding of the organization’s functions. The director confidently stated that we would be able to add something to the project no matter what. She repeatedly reminded us that the best way to support the students was to be present, interested, and willing to help. To step into this supportive role, I realized that I should try to leave my comfort zone and interact more with the students. This job would require getting over that hump of worrying too much about what the kids thought of my language skills. I needed to simply laugh and learn right along with them. When I broke through this anxious barrier that held me back, I was able to really learn and connect in a way I initially thought would be impossible. My new advice to anyone attempting to learn a language while in a foreign country is to throw caution to the wind and just speak.
The other interns and I created a matching game with these drawings and cards.
The other manner in which the other interns and myself were able to make ourselves useful was through English lessons and the creation of classroom resources. We gave a total of four English lessons on the topics of animals, food, greetings, and music. Each time we were set to get a lesson, nothing would go smoothly and the final product looked vastly different from what we originally intended. There would be last minute changes introduced by the director, more or less student attendance that anticipated, materials that would magically go missing, or transportation issues that would have us arriving hours late. Through it all we delivered these lessons to students who seemed eager to hear what we had to say. If it hadn’t been for their constant energy, it would have been much harder for me to enjoy my time and develop lessons. We also decided to create decorations for the walls such as a word tree that students could add to and a paper solar system with descriptions of the planets. On our last day of work, I can recall sitting in the middle of the classroom and looking around to see that we had made the place slightly more colorful and full of lesson plans and additional tools that could be used in the future. It was a satisfying feeling of accomplishment.
This student is showing off his work from an activity we created on food. We told students to draw their favorite food on plates and helped them write the label in English.
I can’t finish the tale of this internship without briefly describing the director of the organization. Jose was a sweet woman who was attempting to finish university, direct the organization, and work an additional full-time job at the same time. She came in every day running on only a few hours of sleep, but there was always a welcoming smile on her face. She also had an endless patience that I envied as I began my work with this wild group of students. Though it confused me initially why she was still spending so much time at this school where she was paid next to nothing, I finally came to see how driven she was by her passion to help the students in this area of the city. Jose certainly taught me the importance of staying true to what you love and ignoring the typical pressures of a society that usually judges your worth based on the money you make.
On our last day of class, the students made water color paintings of their favorite location.
Through all the challenges and moments where I wanted to give up, my time in Buenos Aires turned out to be incredible. I will hold onto the relationships I made here and the lessons I learned for many years to come. The experience helped me stray far beyond the edges of my comfort zone and grow as an individual. I can’t say that I’m now fluent in Spanish nor that I have my future goals figured out after spending time abroad, but a step was taken in the right direction on both accounts. Though my time here didn’t turn as I had imagined, I learned to make the most of it and have fun in doing so.
Post written by: Claire Girardeau
This project was made possible through the awarding of a Passport Grant made possible by the generous contributions of PLP Alumni and Friends. Thank you to all who empower PLPers to do amazing things!