Alumni Spotlight: Sarah Hoffer

Stories That Shaped Us: How Service-Learning and Spanish Impact my Work Today

Sarah Hoffer studied abroad with ISA Service-Learning in Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, Chile Spring 2016 and is an alumnae of Messiah College. Sarah shares her reflections on why she chose a service-learning program in Chile and how this experience impacts her work today as a Behavioral Health Technician. We reached out to Sarah to learn more about the stories that have shaped her!

What was the process like choosing your program? Why did you choose service-learning in Valparaíso and Viña del Mar?

I completed a double major in Psychology with a Clinical Concentration and in Spanish at Messiah College. One of the requirements of the Spanish program was completing a semester abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. At the time, I had the choice between Barcelona, Spain, through a different company and Valparaíso, Chile, through ISA. I had heard good things about both programs, but the program in Chile seemed to be a better fit for me for several reasons.

Firstly, I assumed that Chilean Spanish would be more similar to the Spanish that I would encounter in the U.S. than the distinctive dialect spoken in Barcelona. I also was not particularly interested in travelling around Europe at the time because I wanted to immerse myself in the culture of the country during my semester. Additionally, numerous Messiah students and staff spoke highly of the Chilean program, like the chance to connect with a Chilean church and ISA’s timely communication between staff, students abroad, and their families at home. One student even gave me the name of her host family, which I then requested, and I ended up staying with them!

I recall learning about the Service-Learning program on the ISA website when I was preparing to register. I had completed several service-learning experiences at Messiah and I enjoyed them because they allowed me to expand my knowledge while helping others in tangible ways. I was excited that I might be able to have a similar experience in another country, as well as the added benefit of increasing my Spanish skills. I also had heard that the course load was not as intense in Chile as it was in the U.S., so I thought it would be a good way to fill some of my “extra” time. Additionally, I decided to use the service-learning experience as the basis for my Senior Honors Project the following year.

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What was your service-learning placement and what were your responsibilities?

My placement was at Centro Bellavista, which is a school for children who have intellectual disabilities and autism. While I was there, I split my time between three different classrooms. I helped the teachers while they worked with a small group of students because some of the children needed more individual attention. I also interacted with the kiddos throughout their school day by assisting them as needed during “morning meeting” activities, helping them with group crafts, playing games with them at recess, etc. I even led a lesson on how to create a homemade lava lamp for some of the older kids, and they really enjoyed it!

One of the other ISA students was completing her service-learning at Centro Bellavista as well, and we got to help the school in another way. At least when I was in the program, ISA would give the organizations a donation, sort of as a “thank you” for hosting the ISA students but also as a way to support their work. The other student and I asked if we could combine our donation amounts so that we could replace one of the classroom doors. The door itself was not in great shape; there was a large hole in part of it and the handle was broken. A broken door handle is not only inconvenient but also not safe for the kiddos or for the teachers. We found out a few weeks after returning to the U.S. that ISA had combined our donation amounts and the school had repaired the door!

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Tell us about your current job! What does your day-to-day look like?

My full-time position is a Behavioral Health Technician, and I work with children who have mental health diagnoses and/or behavioral concerns to help them reach the goals in their treatment plans. These goals can include complying with directions, remaining on task, transitioning between activities, reducing aggression or self-injurious behaviors, identifying emotions, improving coping skills, and increasing social skills. I collaborate with the child’s family, teachers, etc., to help them learn new skills as well, so that they are able to help the child after they discharge from services. I also work a few hours a week as a Special Instructor with my local Early Intervention program. I work with children under age 3 and their families to help the children expand their communication skills and play skills in their natural environments. Right now, I see some of my clients in person; while I see others virtually due to COVID-19.

How did your time abroad in Chile impact your career goals? Did you develop any skills abroad that you use in your job today?

Because I honed my Spanish-speaking skills so much in Chile, I am able to work with Spanish-speaking families without requiring an interpreter. About least half of my Early Intervention clients have been Spanish-speaking, some of whom knew almost no English. I think I can understand the families and their concerns better without an interpreter because sometimes things can get lost in translation even with the best of interpreters. I also think the families appreciate that I can communicate with them in their native language as we work to help their children achieve their goals.

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Did COVID-19 shift your personal and/or professional goals? Any new hobbies or interests?

When the pandemic hit full-force about a year ago, I could not see any of my clients in person for several weeks. I did some telehealth sessions and watched training videos to fill out the time. I learned through that experience that traditional “desk jobs” are not a great fit for me. I kind of thought that way before the pandemic, but having to sit at a desk all day for all of those weeks convinced me that I was right. To balance the time sitting and staring at a screen, I came to enjoy walking outside and yoga more than I had in the past. I also remembered how much I enjoy books when I didn’t want to stare at a screen anymore and it was time to wind down for the day.

As crazy as everything is, I’m proud of myself and my clients’ families for adapting to all of the changes as well as we have. If you would have told me a few years ago that I would be doing telehealth with kids who are nonverbal and who have autism, I would not have believed you. But I did, and we are making it work as best as we can. Going through a semester abroad has helped me adapt to situations that are new, different and sometimes undesirable. I hope that I can continue to be flexible and grow through this experience.

Inspired by Sarah’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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