Alumni Spotlight: Catherine Thomson

Stories that Shaped Us: “Travel because you want to teach. Don’t teach because you want to travel.”

Catherine Thomson studied abroad with ISA Service-Learning in Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, Chile Fall 2017 and Lima, Peru Spring 2018. Catherine is a former ISA Global Ambassador and alumnus of Guilford College. Catherine talks about how her service-learning experience impacts her work today as an English teacher in Santiago, Chile! Catherine is passionate about her work as an English teacher and offers meaningful insight on teaching abroad. We reached out to learn more about the stories that have shaped her!

What inspired you to study abroad with ISA twice during college?

The opportunities for cultural immersion. Two of my main goals were to put my Spanish skills into practice and to live and learn among locals. For that reason, I took advantage of the Courses with Locals in Multiple Disciplines programs during both semesters.

What were the main cultural differences between Valparaíso, Chile and Lima, Peru?

Valparaíso (aka Valpo) is a small port city with many universities. The people I met there came from all over Chile. To me, they seemed to have a united/singular sense of cultural identity. Many of the relationships I formed were through meeting new people with common interests in various settings. It was typical to talk to people I didn’t know well about a number of topics. They could range from general (like the weather) to personal (like my living situation).

Lima a is big, governmental capital. Most of the locals I met were born and raised there. Situated in Peru, I found it to have a larger variety of cultural identities. Many of the connections I formed were through people I had previous relationships with. When conversing with people I didn’t know well, topics were more based on the context at hand or life in general.

A statue in Lima I snapped a pic of while on a tour with ISA. In Spanish, the word “llama” can mean “flame” (from the Latin “flamma”) or the alpaca-like animal from the Andes (from the Quechua “llama”)1. While the designer requested the former, the sculptor built the latter!2

A sculpture of trapeze swingers in Plaza Sotomayor, Valparaiso. I often wandered my way through artisan markets there on the weekends, trying on earrings and chatting with vendors.

Tell us about your service-learning experience in Chile!

Honestly, with every year that passes, I become more grateful for it. Some of the benefits have been more tangible, from the continued friendships with my co-volunteers to my increased arts and crafts skills and vocabulary.

My best attempts at drawing my fellow volunteers and writing “Welcome to Recreation” in Spanish :)

Others, like my shift in mindset, have been less tangible; but valuable nonetheless. This change came about because of the structure of my role. Like many others in the service-learning program, it was hands-on and at the support level.

For this reason, I learned to enter new communities as a cultural “apprentice,” observing what others were organizing around me and finding ways to support.

Did you always want to teach? What inspired your decision to move to Chile after graduation and teach abroad?

Just before arriving in Chile to study with ISA, I had finished an internship teaching extra-curricular English classes. Coincidentally, it also took place in Peru! That experience sparked my interest in teaching learners of the language.

Then, my semester in Valpo came. By the time it ended, I knew it would be a matter of when I would return to Chile rather than if I would return to Chile. After completing my TEFL licensure program (CELTA) and finishing my bachelor’s degree, I found an English teaching job in Santiago. Now, I get to live two dreams every day.

Students of mine during a lesson on giving directions. They had to build a city, hide a treasure in one of the 3D buildings, and create a list of instructions to arrive there!

What’s your favorite part about teaching? What’s the most challenging part?

While it might sound trite, my absolute favorite part is working with the students. After observing what their needs are as a learner, I have to gather and put together resources in a way that serves them best. And when all of that comes together and I see my students achieving their goals, that is when I feel most gratified in what I do.

As for many teachers around the world, achieving a work-life balance can be difficult.

What’s something you’ve learned along the way that has stuck with you?

The “apprentice” mindset I mentioned when discussing my takeaways from service-learning. I will grow most in countries, cultures, and even careers, by learning how I can participate in a supportive way.

Any advice for students interested in teaching abroad?

Travel because you want to teach. Don’t teach because you want to travel.

External Sources:

1:, 2021

2: Cowie, Hellen, 2017

Inspired by Catherine’s journey and want to discover your own while immersing yourself in an abroad experience? Fill out your details below to let our team know and we’ll help you find your adventure today!

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