Volunteering Abroad: Finding My Heart in Chile

Volunteering Abroad: Finding My Heart in Chile

Each morning when I greet my students at the classroom door, some give me besos on the cheek and others simply say, “Hello!” They quickly file in and take a seat and as I close the door to walk towards the front of the classroom they all stand up in unison and say: “Good morning, Miss Lauren!”

My decision to volunteer abroad was a sudden, yet long-coming decision prompted by a marriage proposal atop the Rockefeller Building in New York City. The setting was picture perfect, a sky-high view of Central Park at sunset. The man is amazing, an incredibly supportive partner who has always encouraged me to follow my dreams. The ring was spectacular, a beautiful diamond surrounded by several more, creating a wonderful flower effect.

Volunteering Abroad: Finding My Heart in Chile
Laura and her students

But, I felt a bit overwhelmed, and it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t quite ready to settle down. There was so much to see, so much fun to be had. When I returned to Santa Barbara, California, I immediately began researching volunteer opportunities abroad, a search that was put on an indefinite hold after my brother’s sudden passing in April 2009. I finally felt whole enough again to resume my search. Inspired by my brother’s strength, compassion, intellect, and love, I decided to follow my heart.

So here I am, four months later, an English teacher in the Valparaiso region of Chile, fully immersed in my journey. Everyday is still an adventure of cultural adjustments and awkward conversations in Chispanglish-an adventure in which time feels completely warped. Time goes by so fast it almost seems like it has stopped-moments turn into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and then the months suddenly blur into moments. I must constantly remind myself to slow down and soak it all in, to not only capture moments on camera, but to capture these moments in my heart as well.

But, I felt a bit overwhelmed, and it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t quite ready to settle down. There was so much to see, so much fun to be had.

I live with an incredibly warm and welcoming Chilean family in Penablanca, a small community made up of casas (houses), ferias (farmer’s markets), and schools. The streets are bustling with working class people, micros (buses), students in their school uniforms, and perros de las calles (street dogs). When I first arrived in July, the abundance of perros de las calles and micros overwhelmed me. In their fleece coats, the dogs tempted fate everyday by chasing micros down the busy roads. Since arriving I have befriended several of the harmless pups that hover around the school where I teach and I have mastered catching the right micro around town.

I teach English to 6th-12th graders at Colegio Jean Piaget, a small semi-private school partially funded by the government and by student tuition fees. At Jean Piaget, 80% of the students do not pay tuition. As I walk into school each morning and through the hallways between classes students gather around me and say “Good morning, Miss,” “Hello, Miss Lauren,” “How are you, Miss?” and the little ones run up to give me besos, a sort of air kiss on the cheek. When I say “Good morning!” or “Hello!” there are usually a few shrieks and a lot of smiles. Most of them have never seen or talked to an American.

On my first day of observation some of the older students asked me: “Miss, do you know Lindsay Lohan?,” “Miss, do you know Miley Cyrus?,” “Miss, do you know Justin Bieber?” When I said, “No, I don’t know them personally,” they responded: “But you live in California, Miss. You are no friends with them?” I must admit all the attention is very sweet, but it’s also very exhausting! I have officially started a collection of stickers, love notes, and regalitos from my students. Today I received three notes, one that says: “Miss Loren. Peace y Love. Alonso.” He drew doves, hearts, and what appears to be lightening bolts. The love and laughter on campus has embraced me and I feel very, very blessed!

On my first day of observation some of the older students asked me: “Miss, do you know Lindsay Lohan?,” “Miss, do you know Miley Cyrus?,” “Miss, do you know Justin Bieber?”

The days in Chile are long, but inspiring. Each and every day I wholeheartedly look forward to empowering Chilean students to advocate for their own educational and economic success. The inequalities of the education system here are devastating and I can only hope to increase my students’ chances of succeeding against all the odds systemically stacked against them. I have followed my heart to the right place. It is here, in the classroom, at family onces (dinner), with my students, in this adventure.

 

 

Volunteering Abroad: Finding My Heart in Chile

About Laura Niemi

Laura NiemiOriginally from Finland, Laura Niemi studied abroad in Germany.

5 thoughts on “Volunteering Abroad: Finding My Heart in Chile

  1. Avatar
    Susan
    March 13, 2011
    Reply

    If you don’t mind me asking, how did your brother suddenly pass? I’m so sorry for your loss.

  2. Lauren
    Lauren
    March 13, 2011
    Reply

    Hi Anna– Valparaiso is incredible! I am lucky to have a few fellow gringa friends living there and I try to visit as much as possible! It has been quite an amazing journey…and its not over yet!! Enjoy yourself and cuidate.

  3. AMiller237
    March 13, 2011
    Reply

    Lauren, I am currently a student here in Valparaiso, Chile. SO glad to read about your experience here opening up worlds for you as well, it sounds like it’s been just what you needed.

  4. Lauren
    Lauren
    March 13, 2011
    Reply

    Hi Alyosha! Im still with my guy 🙂 Hes been an incredible support from home in California.

  5. Avatar
    Alyosha
    March 13, 2011
    Reply

    What happened with the guy?

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