The dark warehouse is cold at 11pm but there’s no chance you’ll be leaving anytime soon. Your managers have insisted that you all stay until every shipment is sent out. The problem is, they aren’t exactly organized when it comes to inventory and it also becomes your job to find and sort all of the orders as well as contact the shipping company.
This is not how you should be spending your life! It’s nice to have a job after college, but retail is not your passion and these conditions are far from ideal. You can feel yourself wasting away with each day you stay at this place.
That’s when you decide to try something new. Something that works best as a young, recent graduate with no heavy commitments or a focused career direction. You’re going to move to another country!
Unhappy at her first job after college, Bri Kapellas decided it was time to take advantage of her youth—and a small nest egg of savings—to see what else the world had to offer. She ended up volunteer teaching with WorldTeach in Chile and explains what it was like transitioning to and living in this South American country.
In this interview, she shares her knowledge about finding a program to work with, figuring out what it means to be a teacher, and transferring that experience back to the States.
Why did you decide to move to Chile?
I wasn’t too happy at the job I had. I’d started working for a small fashion retail company that was very disorganized in its management and the hours were very difficult. It came to a point where I didn’t want to be there anymore and I started to really think about my life. I was still young and I wasn’t sure about what I really wanted to do. I definitely didn’t have a clear cut career path so I figured it was probably a good time to do something like move to another country. I didn’t know if I would have an opportunity to do that later.
I chose the volunteer route over a paying job for several reasons. One is because I knew that, as I got older, it would be harder to take a year out for this type of service experience. I really wanted to live abroad, be immersed in a different culture, and become fluent in the Spanish I’d plugged away at in classrooms for so long. So I really had a feeling of “now or never.”
That might sound dramatic, and little did I know I’d have years living abroad (though that wouldn’t have happened without my having taken this initial plunge), but I just felt strongly that I would be happy with my decision to volunteer abroad.
I looked into the Peace Corps but I wanted to have more control over where I went and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to commit two years or more. So that’s why I went with WorldTeach.
And how did you find out about WorldTeach?
A friend of a friend had done WorldTeach in China. That’s what tipped me off to them in general. She’d had a really good experience and had good things to say about them. That made me feel safe because if you just Google “Volunteer Abroad,” you can get all sorts of crazy, weird things and I was not sure I wanted to give any of them my money. I think it’s important for an actual person to give you a reference and tell you that yes, this program is legit, that they won’t just drop you in the middle of some country and peace out!
Why did you choose to volunteer teach in Chile?
I knew I wanted to go somewhere in Latin America. I had always had an interest in the Spanish language and wanted to become fluent. I also really liked what I knew of the culture. So WorldTeach had a couple of programs in South America and the Chilean one was subsidized through the Chilean Ministry of Education. That meant it was half-priced! I ended up there because of that deal.
The Ministry of Education was also partnering with the Harvard School of Business and so you got to put that on your résumé. There were all sorts of little benefits to doing that specific program which made me choose it over places like Ecuador or Costa Rica (which perhaps would have been the more lush, exciting kinds of Latin American experiences). It was just a very economical choice.
How did you take care of logistics like housing and visas?
So part of the program is that you stay with someone who is preferably involved in the school that you’re teaching at but who is not your host teacher. When you’re teaching, you’re partnered with a Chilean English teacher. The two of you share a class or classes. The classes in Chile are 90 minutes long. How it worked with my host teacher was that I would have half the class for 45 minutes and then we’d switch. Class sizes there are also really big, like 40 to 45 students, so things can get crazy.
Technically you’re not supposed to live with your host teacher. They want you to live with someone like an administrator. Some people lived with the assistant principal and her family or a parent in the school or someone like that. But I ended up living and just spending a lot of time with my host teacher. I lived with her and her dad—this sweet little old man who would make me homemade french fries—it was great. So I lived with her and taught with her and it worked out.
In terms of money, I was a volunteer so I wasn’t getting paid. We got a monthly stipend for classroom supplies and supposedly transportation (but not really). It was about $72 US and that was what we got.
The host family also got paid a certain amount every month to cover the hot water, utilities, and food for us. My host family was very, very generous so probably went above and beyond that to make me comfortable. It was great. I mostly ate at home though I did rely on savings for weekend travel and stuff like that. I did have a little nest egg of money saved up so that I could do some things while I was down there. But mostly, you just live frugally. Sure, we would go out on weekends but luckily all we really needed was cheap beer.
Another perk of the program was that they kind of took care of all the visa stuff. We had to fill out all of the paperwork but they collected it all and everyone’s passports (which was a little scary) but then got it back to us with a visa in it. So that was nice that it was all coordinated.
What was the training like for teaching?
I had zero teaching experience before going. It’s not a requirement for the program. The main requirement is really only that you speak English clearly. They’re interested in the kids being able to recognize and understand the accent and to speak English. They can do all the book work, but you can’t really be in business or have real exchange with other countries if you can’t speak properly. So that was the main focus and is why we partnered with a Chilean English teacher. They were responsible for the testing and administrative stuff.
Before my trip, I read over some materials they sent us, but it really was one of those things that you can’t truly prepare for because you don’t understand what it’s actually going to be like until you get there.
So when you arrive there’s a three-day orientation with WorldTeach and a two-week orientation with the Ministry of Education that is supposed to instruct you on being a teacher. Obviously that falls short in many ways, so I relied a lot on the internet for lesson plans and there were a lot of good forums within our group. We [all the volunteer teachers in Chile] had an email chain where we could exchange ideas and figure out what worked and what didn’t.
There were about 90 or 100 volunteers and after the orientation, we were sent our separate ways. You picked a card with your name on it and it had the name of the city you would be going to on it. I actually lucked out that I was in one of the cities that had a lot of volunteers. There were eight of us in Chillan, which was really nice because I had people to share lesson plans and go out with.
Fun Fact: Chile is as long as the United States of America is wide. So we had volunteers all the way at the top in the desert and all the way down at the bottom near the glaciers.
What were your favorite parts about volunteer teaching?
Probably getting to know the kids. Sometimes they would be so unruly and it would be so crazy in the classroom and I would think, they must hate me or something! But then they could turn around and be so sweet and kind.
I taught fifth to eighth graders. I thought I wanted to teach smaller kids and that I would LOVE my fifth graders and be sort of indifferent to my eighth graders, but it was totally the opposite. In terms of classroom management and getting them to focus, the fifth graders were the hardest ones.
We [the volunteer teachers], were in charge of listening and speaking activities and then the Chilean teacher would do all of the grammar and testing. So I never had to do testing or give worksheets. A lot of what I did was game-based or interaction-based, which is not a typical way of teaching in Chile. It’s much more traditional there like, “I will write this on the board, you will write it in your notebook, and then you will be graded on how well it is written in your notebook.”
So when you tell the kids that you’re going to do something like play Pictionary, they just go crazy and are all over the place. They haven’t grown up with that organized my turn, your turn, and I’m quiet when you’re speaking style of learning. So that all had to be taught and there were times when I’d catch myself making elaborate lesson plans and thinking they were going to be amazing and that I would have loved them as a kid, but then when I tried them, I realized that I had to backtrack and start from the beginning.
Luckily, I had several classes so maybe the first class of the week was a little bit of a mess and then by the end of the week I’d be like, okay, this is how we’re going to do this, ‘Everybody put your hands over your mouth. Say it with me, m-ou-th. Great! Now cover it until it’s your turn to speak.’
You would just have to manage it like that. It was both my favorite and least favorite part. The kids could be really difficult to deal with but they were also so affectionate. And I loved my eighth graders and how they wanted to be cool. They would ask things like, ‘What kind of music do you listen to, Ms.?’ And it was so cute.
That was another thing that was fun. Some of the “bad” kids were the ones who liked listening to music and watching movies in English. So English ended up being their best subject and they would really want to practice it. I was by no means Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, but it was about small victories.
How did your experience transfer to your life back in the States?
When I came back to the States, I started working for a tech PR firm. I can’t say that my experience applied directly to that job in terms of hard skills, but I think it was just a matter of being able to hone my patience and have that flexibility to turn on a dime and be like okay, this isn’t working. What do we do now? With every job, you can’t just commit to following through with something if it’s not working. You need to be able to adjust and accommodate to the situation. I think a lot of what I learned and gained from [volunteer teaching] is how to handle any situation.
Also, I’ve never had another job where I needed to speak Spanish, but I feel like it’s always a plus and people appreciate it.
What advice do you have for students or recent graduates who are interested in volunteering in Chile after college?
I think it’s pretty invaluable to have an organization to go through. I could just imagine it going really wrong if you just showed up somewhere and were like, ‘Hey, I’d like to work for you for free.’ There are so many organizations, so do your research, read reviews, talk to people.
That was another great thing with WorldTeach. They have you do an interview first. I’ve actually done this for some other people since I’ve been back. It’s a part of your application for WorldTeach and it can be a Skype interview or, when I did mine, I was in New York and I had a coffee date with a girl who had completed the program and lived in New York as well. You talk to the person about their experience and what you’re expecting. That way, if you are expecting everything to be sunshine and roses and that it’s not going to be challenging at all, the person can let you know otherwise or let WorldTeach know that you might not be the best fit.
Homework time! Interested in volunteering abroad after college? Take into account some of the points that Bri makes. You probably want to work for a year or more so that you can have a bit of savings to rely on. It is also a good idea to go through a program like WorldTeach that will help you with housing, visas, and setting up your volunteer experience. Ask around to see if you know anyone who has completed a program. Look online and once you’ve found a program that looks good, start finding people to talk to in person about it.