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Student Participant Reports

Combine Study and Volunteer Teaching Abroad

Independent Research Leads to a Richer Learning Experience

Valley in Chile

I’ve had the good fortune to live abroad twice in my life, both times as a student. The first time I was a junior in college and had the traditional studyabroad experience—living and studying in Seville, Spain.

Ten years later, while I was pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, I moved abroad again as an English teacher in Antofagasta, Chile. Eager for new experiences and challenges, I signed up to be a volunteer English teacher with the nonprofit organization WorldTeach. Knowing I would not have enough credits to graduate before my departure date, I arranged to complete my studies by doing an ethnographic research project through an independent contract.

The two experiences have led to very different outcomes. In Spain, I lived with a host family and attended classes on Spanish history, art, and language. At the end of the semester I was savvier about my surroundings, my language skills had improved, and I had made many new friends. Throughout my time there, however, I remained a somewhat distant observer of the culture, using books and class lectures as my primary guide to traditions and customs.

In Antofagasta, creating my own research project forced me to explore my surroundings in ways I had not done as a college student. I still did the same preliminary research but now my community became my classroom, as I analyzed Chilean life and culture. For four months I took notes and collected data. I dove into it, asked questions, and, most importantly, investigated my own transformation throughout the process.

Communication is More Than Just Speaking the Language

Cross-cultural communication is a great deal more than putting words together in a grammatically correct sentence. It is understanding that the difference between a word’s literal and implied meaning can vary significantly.

In my volunteer program’s very thorough orientation I learned that not only do Chileans use many modismos (slang) in their everyday speech, they are also indirect; indeed, I learned not to trust literal translations. For example, “Dejame pensarlo…” literally means, “Let me think about it.” In Chile, this statement means “No.” An outsider struggles with the challenge of not only translating words correctly but also deciphering the implied message.

It is easy to slip into the “it’s weird” mentality when introduced to new customs. Yet learning about other ways of thinking and behaving is why many of us travel in the first place. In Chile my own cultural assumptions have been questioned repeatedly. By living abroad the “truths” about what is appropriate or inappropriate are questioned or flat out contradicted.

There are some cultural differences that are difficult to overcome no matter how much we try to confront them with an open mind. For me, Chileans’ tolerance of noise and their sense of time are still incomprehensible.

What is Actually Being Studied?

The longer I observed my surroundings the more it became clear that I was studying more than Chilean traditions and culture. In essence, I was studying myself within these surroundings.

As any good researcher knows, he or she is not a transparent observer. As I spoke with Chileans about the significant occurrences of their lifetime, I realized I was observing my new community through a lens. The data I collected was subject to the experiences I sought out and the questions I asked. I was like a photographer choosing the scenes I wanted to remember in a snapshot.

The important next step was to ask myself why certain things intrigued me. Why did I choose to notice one interaction over another? From my gringo perspective I distinguished things that were different from my world back home. If I thought something was odd, I had to question why. If a particular interface frustrated me, I had to ask myself if the problem lay within me. The end result was that I spent as much time thinking about who I am and where I’ve come from as I did investigating others.

Having the chance to take my studies outside of the classroom led to a new kind of study-abroad experience. As a 20-year old college student living in Seville I had benefited from the structured classroom life. But as a 30-year old graduate student in Antofagasta, I was challenged and inspired by the less structured fieldwork. Living in Chile as an English teacher and a student was an experience I had to build and shape by networking and pooling resources. The result was a one-of-a-kind journey that helped me look at culture, and myself, in a new light.

For more information on WorldTeach, visit Please note that many of the locations of projects by Worldteach change year to year depending upon need.


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