When I was looking for an international volunteer program, I was overwhelmed with the amount of “voluntourism” and various volunteer-travel recruitment programs I was finding. I felt lost in trying to find good volunteer opportunities aimed at placing my time and resources directly toward the needs of the community. And while I love to travel, I was looking for more than just a snapshot of a cultural experience. I was looking for a genuine opportunity to engage in a complex and rich culture, and to contribute to that community in a meaningful way.
Luckily, I found the English Opens Doors Program’s fee-free volunteer initiative in Chile! The English Opens Doors Program is a part of the Ministry of Education in Chile and is supported by the United Nations Development Program, so the legitimacy of this initiative drew me in. Rather than paying for a feel-good experience that may or may not have an impact, I was being invited to share my skills and abilities through a proven program of the Chilean government.
As I researched this project, I felt that it was a great fit for what I was looking for. I would be a volunteer English teacher assistant in the public school system in Chile and I would live with a host family in my community. Perfect! Even better, I would receive benefits at no cost, like health insurance, a small stipend, and round-trip in-country transportation. I also got to take an online Spanish course to brush up on my basic Spanish language skills.
It´s important to note, I am not a teacher. The comprehensive volunteer training includes TEFL methodologies, effective classroom management strategies, cultural adaption sessions, as well as opportunities to practice-teach English by using only English in a “model class” environment. Teachers and non-teachers alike leave orientation prepared to teach specifically in the Chilean school system.
I volunteered for 3 total semesters in two different parts of Chile. My first volunteer experience was in the agricultural community of Ovalle, which is in the small north of Chile. I taught 9th and 10th grade for 2 semesters in an agricultural technical high school.
For me, the experience was transformative. I made a connection with my classes and I helped to spark interest in some of my students to learn another language and to understand another culture. It was meaningful for me because I was learning from my students’ experiences too. Their perspectives and their goals took me out of my previous reality and placed me in the context of that particular agricultural community.
After my first year, I decided to continue volunteering and to challenge myself with a new and different teaching experience. I was placed in Punta Arenas, a city at the southernmost tip of the continent and the end of Patagonia. There, I taught 7th-11th graders in an all-girls Catholic school.
This was a stark contrast from my first year in Ovalle with my mostly male agriculture students. However, in both experiences the students were genuine, caring, fun and full of personality. It was amazing that in two very different contexts, I felt that I had a demonstrable impact on my students and I was growing personally through the lessons my students were teaching me.
Beyond the teaching experience, I lived with host families in both of my placement locations. I discovered how warm and welcoming the people in Chile really are. I was invited to countless birthday parties, private and special family events, traditional activities that you wouldn´t see without living in the community with a family to connect you.
And while this was more important to me than mere traveling, I got to do that too! I traveled as far north as the beautiful coastal city Iquique, and as far south as the 8th wonder of the world, Torres Del Paine. I went on family trips to really incredible pueblitos and was invited to spend weekends on farms where I helped pick fruit, make marmalade and many traditional Chilean foods. These special experiences helped me to understand many different perspectives and various sub-cultures of Chile, which are as beautiful and vast as its geography.
After my life-changing experiences volunteer-teaching, I joined the National Volunteer Center Staff where I now work to support, train, and help guide the volunteers in our Program so that we all can best meet the needs of the students we are serving. As a government program, our focus is to give stronger support to the public school system in Chile as part of a nation-wide educational reform, to help students discover their passions and reach their goals.
If this opportunity sounds like it would be a good fit for you, please check out our website to find out more about the English Opens Doors Program’s volunteer initiative. If you would like to receive our National Volunteer Center Newsletter to get updates on events happening in the English Opens Doors Program as well as with the volunteer initiative, sign up on our mailing list!