Alumni Spotlight: Robert Evilla

Stories that Shaped Us: How Travel Changed my Self-Doubt Mindset into Self-Assurance

Robert Evilla studied abroad with ISA in Shanghai, China Summer 2016 and is an alumnus of Missouri Western State University. Robert shares his reflections on why he felt called to travel and push himself out of his comfort zone. Robert was so influenced by his time abroad in Shanghai that he decided to move back to China to teach English at Guizhou Forerunner College. We reached out to Robert to learn more about the stories that have shaped him!

When did your passion for travel and exploring other cultures begin?

The earliest memories I have of myself dreaming of travel would be in my early teens. At the time, I was living in a small town that I loathed greatly. Luckily, I had family in Chicago who I would spend time with a few times a year. I spent a lot of time back then looking forward to those few weeks. Those visits gave me my first exposure of what it’s like to experience life outside your normal routine. Over time, I started dreaming of seeing other places and would spend many nights fantasizing about my adult life where I would travel to all kinds of places. It wouldn’t be until I was twenty-one that I would finally start getting serious about traveling. With a few weekend getaways and visits to friends who lived far away, the travel bug hit and hasn’t let go. 

What inspired you to study abroad in Shanghai? 

My fascination for China started in 2008 when Beijing hosted the Olympic Games. More particularly, the opening ceremony. Every moment in that ceremony had my neck hair rising. I became so inspired by it that I had to put China on my bucket list. This fascination lasted into my college years, inspiring two Mandarin courses and one in East Asian literature.

While this was happening, I saw posters for study abroad everyday. Even though every sign pointed to doing it, I was in the mindset of “it can’t be me.” What woke me up from this was witnessing my coworker and close friend planning a trip to Ireland. Like me, she lived in the same small town and worked the same job. Long story short, she had a lot more hurdles in her way than I did when it came to travel. Despite having so much more on her plate than me, nothing was going to stop her from living this dream. What amazed me even more was that when her trip ended, she didn’t stop there. She continued to take trips as often as she could. That’s when told myself, “no more excuses.” If she could do it with everything she had going on then there was no reason I couldn’t. I gave ISA my first phone call and one year later I was on a flight to Shanghai.

What did you learn about yourself through this experience and how did your time abroad impact your understanding of the world?

What I really took from that experience was that I was a lot more than I was giving myself credit for. Before that experience, I walked into every situation in the mentality of “I’m going to fail at this.” Even though I was in college, I had no faith that I would actually complete it. I tried a few sports, but walked into every practice thinking I didn’t belong. Even in the process of going to China, I asked myself every day if I had what it took to do a semester there. After being accepted, jetting across the world and passing all of my courses, I began to rethink my goals with the mentality of “I can and will” instead of “I can’t and won’t.” 

I never thought traveling the world was possible for me. I learned that for anyone willing, the world is full of opportunities to travel. Studying abroad opened my eyes to all that the world offers, no matter your background.

Why did you decide to move to China to teach English after college? What was your favorite part of the job?

Before studying abroad, my Mandarin professor saw how interested I was in China and encouraged me to keep learning, and maybe teach in China in the future. I had not declared a major and I especially didn’t know what I was doing after college. The idea of it felt surreal. The more she reflected on her experience as a Chinese person teaching her language in America, the more I realized that this was the route I wanted to take.

When I came home from Shanghai, the first thing I started doing was planning how I would return. I remembered dreaming of teaching English and with my new mentality of not doubting myself, it was time to make that goal a reality. After a year and a half of more courses relating to the field and a lot of research, I finally got my an offer from Guizhou Forerunner College (GFC).

I had never felt more at home. I loved the job, the people I was working with, the culture and the scenic beauty of Guizhou. There was never a dull moment. However, the best part of it all has been what we stand for at GFC. GFC is not a school for the extremely gifted and talented. We are located in a very impoverished and underprivileged part of China. Everyone is accepted because everyone deserves a chance. This is something I strongly believe in when it comes to education. Nobody deserves to be denied the opportunity for higher education for their grades or the mistakes they made when they were kids. We give them the opportunity to redeem themselves and they normally do. Many find jobs or transfer to universities and graduate. 

I am lucky to have students who keep in contact with me who are now starting careers that began with us. I couldn’t be more proud of them. For me, it’s not just teaching English, immersing myself in the culture or even my weekend hiking trips through the hills of Guizhou. It’s being a part of someone’s second chance that’s truly priceless.

What advice would you give to a college student interested in teaching English abroad? Did you come across any helpful resources?

While this is an incredible opportunity to travel the world and experience new cultures, you still have a job to do. You are not on vacation. Everything that teachers go through in the United States you will go through as an ESL teacher in another country. You will be up late grading papers and making lesson plans and then be up at the crack of dawn to get to school. There will be meetings, trainings, conferences, etc. And just like every teacher you’ve ever met, you will deal with problem students, parents and answer to the higher ups.

It’s easy to go into this thinking your whole life will be one long vacation without a care in the world. I’ve found that the best thing for you to do is to let that mentality go immediately because you will let yourself down. I’ve seen too many hopeful ESL teachers realize that far too late and they burnt themselves out before their career could really take off.

What does travel mean to you?

I could do an entire interview on just this question alone, but the shortest answer I can give is that traveling is leaving your footprint wherever you go. I am all about the sights and the food and I embrace that when traveling. It’s good to spend one day being the stereotypical tourist. But when that’s all you do, then you never truly get to know the real story. Meet new people, learn their stories, share your story and make their day as interesting as yours. As fortunate as I consider myself to have seen the many places I’ve seen, what really made my travels worth it all was the people I’ve met along the way. I have met hundreds in my travels and they have made a major impression on me. If I made the same impression on at least one of them, then I can say I left my footprint in that place the same way it left one on me

The common saying is that the world is a big place, so go see as much as you can. I think it’s time to add that there are 7 billion humans on earth, go meet as many as you can.

Inspired by Robert’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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