Language Study and Volunteerism in Cochabamba, Bolivia
An Excellent Choice for Cultural Immersion with an Impact
|A view of the mountains that flank Cochabamba, Bolivia.
I had four weeks before my flight to Lima, Peru departed. I was about to spend the next several months in South America immersing myself in Spanish language study and volunteer work, but had yet to decide just where exactly that immersion would occur.
A tight budget ruled out popular and more expensive locales. As my departure date loomed, a friend mentioned casually that a friend of hers had spent a year of high school studying in Bolivia, so I asked him about it. “Go to Cochabamba!” he enthusiastically directed. I tentatively found the exotic name on a map; an Internet search revealed an affordable language school. A few weeks and several bus rides later, I arrived in my new home.
If you yearn to dive into the Spanish language, volunteer with unique organizations and experience vibrant cultures in a beautiful mountainous landscape, then I too offer the following advice: Go to Cochabamba.
Escuela Runawasi Language School
After two weeks with the skilled and unfailingly patient teachers at Escuela Runawasi (www.runawasi.org), I could get around this city of over half a million people without much trepidation. After a semester at the school, the joy of having animated conversations with Bolivians--exchanges that would have been impossible just months before--was boundless.
Escuela Runawasi is directed by husband and wife team Janine and Joaquin Hinojosa; their school derives its name from the Quechua language word for “House of the People.” Located in the friendly, tightly-knit neighborhood of Villa Juan XXIII, the school’s small classrooms open onto a patio, all of which are tucked behind a bougainvillea-covered wall and framed by the majestic Cerro Tunari, a 17,060-foot peak (5200 meters) that towers over the city and surrounding valley.
Spanish and Quechua language courses start every day of the week. Classes run four and a half hours with a half-hour break--the perfect time to replenish with a fresh papaya shake made on site in the school’s kitchen. Students have the option of arranging their own housing, or staying with one of several families in the community.
For those who want to perfect their Spanish skills and deepen their understanding of Bolivia, a home stay is a matchless experience. From the moment I set my bag down in my hosts' living room, I was treated as a family member, a sentiment that only deepened over three and a half months. Sharing meals together, taking evening walks with my host mother, playing sports with younger siblings, and staying up late together to drink coca tea and watch “tela novellas”--the popular nightly soap operas of Latin America--were some of the most cherished experiences of my year abroad.
Language classes at Escuela Runawasi go well beyond grammar and spelling, with an emphasis on the history, culture and political texture of Bolivia. Teachers share their experiences and perspectives with students through conversation ranging from current events to the country’s vigorous legacy of literature, art, poetry and music. The school also arranges a variety of weekend and daylong excursions, including trips to historic mines, pre-Inca ruins, rainforest, nearby villages and an unforgettable hike to the summit of Cerro Tunari.
Enrollment forms, current class/home stay prices and other helpful information can be found on Escuela Runawasi's website, or by contacting the school at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are interested in volunteering while you study, endless opportunities await. Cochabamba is home to numerous non-governmental organizations that work on issues ranging from hunger alleviation and health education to micro-enterprise, human rights and environmental protection. I found a great way to practice my fledgling Spanish skills by contacting and meeting with the Bolivian directors and staff of some of these NGO’s. Most were welcoming and eager to share information about their organizations and how they were effecting positive changes in their city and beyond.
|An evening out with two language instructors from Escuela Runawasi.
Eventually, I landed a volunteer position with Mosoj Yan (www.mosojyan.org). Mosoj Yan is a Quechua word meaning “New Road” and that is precisely what this program provides to young people. The organization works with girls and adolescents who live and/or work on the street, providing them shelter, healthy meals, educational support, counseling and mentoring.
Mosoj Yan welcomes volunteers from any background with beginning to intermediate Spanish skills. The organization simply requires that volunteers share its values of kindness, compassion, honesty, and solidarity with and commitment to the young people this excellent program serves. Volunteers may find themselves providing one-on-one tutoring; planning educational, motivational, and technical training workshops; assisting with micro-enterprise projects; or accompanying students on a variety of recreational and educational field trips.
Setting up my own language study and volunteer experience in Cochabamba proved a rewarding challenge, but you do not have to go it alone if you want to combine the two. Two Cochabamba-based organizations can help arrange every detail, from home stays and language classes to short and long-term volunteer posts in the city and surrounding countryside. These groups also provide links on their websites to a variety of NGOs in and around Cochabamba.
|Recess time with students from Mosoj Yan.
As stated on its website (www.volunteerbolivia.org), Volunteer Bolivia “is a small, individually tailored program which matches your skills and interests to local needs in order to provide you with an unforgettable cross cultural experience.”
Co-founders Lee Cridland and Javier Molina direct volunteer Bolivia. Cridland, a U.S. citizen, first ventured to the country in 1994 to volunteer in an orphanage. She never left, establishing Volunteer Bolivia “to provide an alternative learning experience for travelers.” Molina is Bolivian and co-founded the organization to help visitors understand the realities of his country while assisting local civic organizations. The team also operates Bolivia Cultura (www.boliviacultura.com), which provides experiential travel and tourism opportunities throughout the country.
To learn more about Volunteer Bolivia, prices for home stays and language study, or to enroll in a program, visit their website or contact: email@example.com.
Sustainable Bolivia (www.sustainablebolivia.org) is a newer organization that works “to provide Bolivian organizations with much needed human and financial resources while providing international travelers, students and professionals the opportunity to gain practical work experience through internships and volunteer opportunities in Bolivia.”
The program offers language courses, home stay opportunities, other low-cost housing for travelers, and cultural and ecotourism excursions. For program prices, enrollment forms and other information, visit their website or contact Sustainable Bolivia at: firstname.lastname@example.org
An additional, good source of information on language schools and volunteer opportunities in Cochabamba and throughout Bolivia is the website: www.languageschoolsguide.com/Bolivia.cfm (Editor's note: Also see Transitions Abroad's section on language schools in Bolivia).
Whether you choose to study and volunteer independently, or utilize the services of one of the reputable cross-cultural organizations listed here, Cochabamba is a friendly, accessible and attractive city where you can experience firsthand South American hospitality at its best.