Leslie Huey - General Care Projects in Peru
For quite a while I knew that upon immediately graduating college in California I wanted to fly away to a completely different place, immerse myself in a new culture, and volunteer. I have been blessed my entire life and wanted to give a little back to a community. More specifically, I wanted to find a programme where I could also stay with a host family (in order to learn the local customs), improve my Spanish, and work with younger children while speaking in Spanish. Projects Abroad’s Peru Care programme satisfied all these requirements, and before I knew it, I was on a plane bound for Cusco, Peru.
I arrived in the little town of Urubamba, Peru in mid-July, right at the peak of winter. This means hot and dry days and cold nights in Peru, which was the first of many surprises. The first few days were difficult, to say the least. Immediate home sickness, coping with the altitude change (living at around 10,000 feet above sea level!), having no friends and culture shock were just a few things I had to deal with. However, a nice and welcoming family, as well as a great placement helped my homesickness go away and eased my transition to Peruvian culture.
For my three month placement, I primarily worked at IEI Media Luna in between the towns of Urubamba and Ollaytantambo in the Sacred Valley. The school is small and quaint and has children ages three to five years old who live in the mountains in between. The primary teacher is very strict with the children, but pretty down to earth once I got to know her. At the time I volunteered, there was not enough funding to open up two classrooms, so everyone was combined into one room, and the development and learning abilities varied significantly from one child to the next. My main role in the classroom was to assist the teacher such as helping out students one-on-one with assignments, making sure the class was in order, and that they were all safe. Because I am pretty proficient in Spanish, I was also able to prepare and lead quite a few lessons myself. For one week, I introduced the students to a vowel in the alphabet. My lesson included thinking of words that began with the vowel (avión, árbol, arcoiris, etc.), writing the words on the board, and emphasising the sound that every word had in common (in this case, a). Afterwards, I had the students draw pictures of things that started with the vowel.
Even though I was an assistant, it was wonderful that the teacher gave me enough responsibility to make me feel like I was a teacher as well. Perhaps one of the most difficult things though that came with this responsibility was to command the respect of the students like a teacher. In the end, I don’t feel I ever accomplished this, which is probably attributed to the short time I was there. Yes, three months does sound like a long time, but I wish I had more time to get to know my students and truly feel like a second teacher to them. This may have been one of the tougher things about teaching: not feeling like I completely bonded with my students.
Another difficulty was the feeling of failure on my behalf at some points. No matter how much I taught the materials (using different methods of teaching), some of the students could still not grasp the lessons in front of them. I inquired about this to my teacher, and she gave me a simple answer. If you teach in an environment such as this, you have to take into account the age differences between the students. Also, many of them come from difficult homes and may not get the nourishment or support needed to help develop intellectually. Though this was frustrating at times, it helped put into perspective the completely different obstacles my Peruvian students were dealing with. All in all, I am extremely grateful for the strides I was able to take in the classroom (I’m comfortable teaching in Spanish now!) and the lessons I learned in my own pursuit to become an elementary school teacher.
Media Luna had a two week holiday during my placement, so there were other things I was able to do in my community, organised by Projects Abroad. Other volunteers and I painted a school in a very rural area, as well as painted their furniture. I also participated in fluoride campaigns in a couple schools, helping students with their dental hygiene and handing out free toothbrushes. Finally, I chose to spend my tenth week of work at Taricaya on Project’s Abroad Conservation programme. Needless to say, my time in Peru was filled with lots of new experiences. I benefited the communities I lived in, made great friends and travelled around this fantastic country.
In retrospect, there are some things I would recommend to future volunteers. If possible, come to Peru with some knowledge of the Spanish language. Most people do not understand English, and though the office is great at translating, you can soak up much more of the culture and contribute more to the placement if you speak Spanish. Had I not known Spanish, it would have been extremely difficult to converse with my teacher, or try to form a relationship with my students. Secondly, spend time with your host family. They are not simply people you live with, but rather your second family. This is how I really got to learn about Peruvian culture, as I attended festivals with my family, and participated in birthdays and local traditions with them.
Finally, give it time. I came into Peru thinking I could completely immerse and embrace the culture immediately. It takes time to get to know a new culture and its customs, and it’s difficult to get it all down the first day. For example, it took me quite a while to get used to throwing toilet paper in a rubbish bin, and tolerate cold showers (though I admit I probably never got used to that!). It’s hard to adapt, especially if you’re missing loved ones at home. Also remember to reward and acknowledge all the steps you’ve taken with your placement and home stay. Even the small steps count! Give it time and soon you will fall in love with Peru and the time will fly by.
In the end, I was able to get so much out of my time teaching in Peru, and can take all I’ve learned and apply it to my future career in education in California. The Projects Abroad staff made me feel very comfortable throughout my time, and if I had any questions regarding lesson planning or gathering materials for Media Luna, they were always there to help. I hope to return back to Peru one day, which has become a second home to me.
¡Saludos y espero que te pase un buen tiempo en Perú!