Name: Katie Gavle
Occupation: Spanish Teacher
Current city: Madison, Wisconsin
Why did you decide to volunteer?
Graduating with a degree in Spanish Education, I knew that I wanted to spend some time in a Spanish speaking country before starting my teaching career. Ultimately, I found a great way to spend a year immersed in Spanish language and Mexican culture by volunteering with YAGM (Young Adults in Global Mission). It is designed to place young adults, between 19 and 30 years old, in different volunteer sites around the world.
How did you find out about the program?
Gotta love my mom and snail mail! During my last year at UW, she stumbled on an article about YAGM and sent me the clipping. After looking at the program online, I sent in the application and the ball started rolling quickly after that. Before I knew it, I did a phone interview with program alumni. Then I was invited to the “DIP” weekend event (Discernment, Interviews, and Placement) in which all of the potential volunteers learn about their top country sites and the work done there; meet the country coordinators and other potential volunteers; and are finally selected for one of the country sites. The process went quickly and was very assuring – it was clear from the beginning that a lot of care and deep consideration was taken to make sure that volunteers are well matched to their placement and are capable of meeting the needs of their host communities.
Where did you live?
I served in Cuernavaca, Mexico, as a preschool teacher at two different work sites, both in extremely marginalized communities. I lived with a host mother, whose children were old enough to be married and have their own families (although they visited often). My host mom was the highlight of my experience. She is a strong willed woman who has led an incredibly challenging life, always emerging with grace and hope for what lies ahead. She is passionate about her faith and caring for her family and community. I learned so much from her during that time and we still maintain a great relationship thanks to her grandkid’s technology and emails and Skype!
What was a typical day like?
My morning work site was at La Estación, a small school for preschool aged kids in the poorest community in Cuernavaca. I taught basic skills bilingually: colors, shapes, numbers, and the alphabet in English and Spanish. Lots and lots of silly songs we used and I can still smile when I remember the voices of the kids singing along to our color song. I went home for lunch with my host mom and we often shared a long conversation over delicious home-cooked food. Then I would head out to my afternoon work site at Casa Tatic. Again, I was working with extremely marginalized children from the surrounding neighborhoods and the children of the people who work in the markets. We provided lunch and basic educational support (for my preschool group, we did a lot of games and art projects). Then I would spend the evening back at home with my host mom. Often, her daughters would visit with their families and the house would buzz with all the people.
What did you love most?
I LOVE the people of Mexico. It is a warm and generous culture and I
walked away from the experience deeply touched by the hospitality of my
host family and the kindness of the people who I met and worked with.
What did you love least?
I had the most difficult time adjusting to my work sites. No fault of the sites, it was my own struggle with reconciling the difference between what my work site communities needed and what I expected them to need. I had to “hit a wall” time and time again before I started to realize that my concept of “education” was not going to fit the communities where I worked. It was a painful process, but I ultimately learned a valuable lesson that has made me a better teacher.
Any tips for someone who would like to do a program like this?
Do your homework and some soul searching. Spending a good chunk of time outside of the United States is an incredible thing that has opened my eyes to realities far bigger than what I could experience on a vacation or read in a book. It taught me about ways in which we are all human and how to celebrate finding myself among brothers and sisters that are so different than me on the surface. It also taught me about my own strength and independence and how to trust myself and my convictions. It was a life-changing opportunity and one of the best things I have ever done for myself. However, culture shock can be a beast of a thing and it takes serious commitment and desire to stick out the tough times. There were times when I considered quitting, but I’m so glad I didn’t. If I had quit, I would remember it as an awful experience and never had the chance to really find the happiness that came by the end. If you are considering pursuing an experience abroad, make sure you find one that fits your personality and make sure that you have the gumption to truly immerse yourself in your host culture. If you can, you will walk away from an invaluable experience that will change your life too.
Anything else you’d like to add?
YES! If this information at all perked your interest in international volunteer work, please check out more information about the YAGM program. I was really happy with the way the program is run and it is incredibly supportive of the volunteers.
Thank you for sharing, Katie! Another thing I’d like to point out about Katie is that she blogged while she studied abroad in Italy during college and while she lived in Mexico for a year. It was a really great way to keep tabs on her and learn about all of the amazing things she was doing while they were happening. I loved it!
You know you’ve done something awesome. Yes, you! So e-mail me a quick note and then I’ll e-nterview you. Just a few questions over e-mail and then you’ll be featured on my blog. Ta-da!