The mention of “volunteering abroad” often conjures visions of immunizing children in remote locations or building villages in Central America or other such fantastic acts of humanitarianism. This is all well and good, and I honestly hope to engage in these activities someday. For the time being in Salamanca, however, I’ve discovered that small-scale giving-back to a community can be just as fulfilling.
ISA works to connect study abroad students with local schools and organizations that need assistance, and all you have to do is express interest. Time commitments vary depending on your schedule, and most groups are grateful to have volunteers whenever they can. I volunteer at the YMCA for two hours every Wednesday, where I act as tutor and general supervisor of an after-school program called Apoyo Educativo. Working with Spanish elementary school children has been quite the experience, so without further ado, I preach:
1. You practice the language.
Speaking Spanish with kids is different than speaking Spanish in class, with friends or with a host family. They are learning their own language as we all once did, which can make speaking with them simultaneously easier and more challenging. A few of the kids are studying early English but most know only Spanish, necessitating its use.
2. You meet people.
Since I don’t have classes with locals, it’s been a little more difficult to find and connect with Spaniards my own age. Volunteering has helped to remedy this, as I met a fellow University of Salamanca student on my first day. We’ve since met up for coffee and shopping, and she’s introduced me to a few of her friends. This is the kind of thing you want when you study abroad, people.
3. You gain life/people skills.
I will never again take for granted teachers and what they do. Discipline, engagement, enthusiasm, creativity, organization, patience…did I mention patience? Kids respond more naturally than socially-groomed adults, and so if you’re doing it wrong they’ll be sure to let you know. And if you’re tired and apathetic after your own school day, they’ll reflect that accordingly by not listening, paying attention or doing their own work. Interaction takes energy and at times persistence.
4. You really do make a difference.
Nothing can contend with the smiles when I step through the door, the excited hands in the air and chorus of “Inglés! Inglés! Tengo tarea en inglés!” Many children are eager to interact with and learn from a foreigner, and they are equally delighted to play teacher for once when I have questions about their language. Many are of lower-income homes and are also seeking attention and affection, which I am happy to provide. Ultimately, Wednesdays at the Y are good days for all.