From Americorps to Colombia

Growing up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, I was exposed to people from a variety of different backgrounds. Some of my closest friends in high school were Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and East Asian. Despite living in such a mixing pot of culture, the idea of living abroad was not something that I was exposed to in my household. My parents never discussed any desire to live anywhere outside of the United States, and I didn’t know of anyone who had ever studied or lived abroad.

As far as I was aware, my education and career options were limited to the confines of the 50 states.

The first time I encountered studying abroad as a concept, I was still settling into life on my own in college and the idea of living in another country was still too much to grasp. It wasn’t until my junior year of college, when a close friend of mine studied abroad for two semesters, that I told myself, “Hey, this is actually possible.” Yet, I still didn’t pursue it as an option for myself.

I instead grappled with a very different life changing dilemma during my time as a senior at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU)  in Richmond, Virginia.  In the spring of 2014, I decided that I wanted to enter the field of education. Unfortunately, much to the dismay of my parents, this epiphany came after I had completed over 100 credits towards a degree in Public Relations and I was on the verge of graduating. Acquiring a second degree was out of the question, but that semester I applied to a program called Teach for America. This program would allow me to go straight into the classroom with no teaching credentials or education degree and teach underprivileged youth.

I didn’t believe that I needed credentials to be a teacher. I had seen certified teachers burn out and decide teaching  wasn’t for them when placed in challenging work environments. My driving force was a passion to help underprivileged youth, regardless of professional training. I made it to the final interview round before being turned down, but the fire was already set.

I said goodbye to the corporate world of mass communications and figured I’d be trading in my briefcase for a backpack in no time.  What I didn’t know was how many more times I would be turned down before I reached my goal.

After completing my degree and being denied by Teach for America, I looked for other opportunities to teach students with unique backgrounds. On the recommendation of a friend, I accepted an invitation to serve as a VCU AmeriCorps Team Leader in Richmond and embarked on a truly life‐changing experience. Through the AmeriCorps program, I helped students at an elementary school in a low‐income community improve their reading level. I felt the struggle of working at a school with overwhelmed teachers, apathetic parents, and students who had a lot going on in their day‐to‐day lives. It took a lot patience and perseverance to complete all 1700 of my service hours by August 2015. Even though my first real world experience in the classroom was incredibly challenging, the rapport I developed with the students only reinforced that I had made the correct career choice.

I began to wonder if it was more worthwhile to look at teaching opportunities overseas. Even though studying abroad hadn’t been a part of my life plan growing up, recognizing it as a possibility during college and experiencing obstacles to teaching in the U.S. set my sights internationally. So it was that while completing my service hours through AmeriCorps, I also applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to Colombia. Not only was I interested in living in a foreign country, I was excited to gain teaching experience in a very different classroom setting.

The Fulbright Scholarship is one of the most competitive grants for teaching abroad. My application ended up being denied. However, I remained undeterred and since I was still interested in leaving the U.S., I immediately applied to the Peace Corps.Applying to the Peace Corps was one of the most arduous processes I have ever endured, and I was bombarded with a dizzying amount of requests for essays, background checks, and medical history forms. However, it was all worth it because about four months later, I received a big shiny acceptance email in my inbox. I rejoiced because I believed that I had finally accomplished my dream of teaching abroad. I shared the good news with all of my friends and relatives. Unfortunately, about a month later, I awkwardly had to explain that my plans had fallen through because I didn’t meet all of the application requirements.

At this point, it would have been easy to accept the fact that no program wanted to take me. I was growing weary of filling out lengthy applications, but I made one last stand and applied for an intriguing program through WorldTeach. It would allow me to teach abroad in Colombia beginning in January 2016. I ended up in an exhaustion-induced stupor by the time I submitted a final round of application statements and school transcript records. But it’s true that good things come to those who wait and I was accepted to my dream position in August 2015.

As an African American teaching abroad in Colombia, I am increasing my mechanisms for communicating with people from a different culture.

Colombian Water
Image: Cherryl Cannon

My time serving the underprivileged student population in Richmond greatly prepared me for working with the underprivileged student population in Cartagena, Colombia. I didn’t have any solid expectations going in, but, if anything, my experience in Colombia has exceeded my hopes.

In spite of the numerous rejections, I wouldn’t change a thing about my journey to get where I am now. At the end of the 11 months that I am spending in Cartagena, Colombia, I expect to have my TEFL certification and a wealth of new experiences to draw from in the classroom. I still believe that the passion and drive to see your students succeed outweighs the benefits of a certification if one does not have these same motivations. However, I do plan to acquire a TEFL certification because it opens more doors for me to be able to travel and teach abroad. To those looking to follow in my overseas teaching footsteps, perseverance and determination are crucial, especially if it doesn’t work out right away. After all, nothing in life worth having comes easy.

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