Volunteering while studying abroad

One of the biggest goals of any study abroad trip is to become intertwined with the country’s culture. But with the distractions of Facebook, Netflix, and other American friends abroad to pull you back to the U.S., it can be hard to truly be immersed. The best way I found to accomplish this is to volunteer within the community.

I volunteered twice a week as an English conversation assistant at an elementary school in my side of town, and I was lucky enough to have 60 of the coolest kids in Sevilla, Spain.

“Where are you from?”

“I am from the United States!”

“EEEEEEEEP! QUE GUAY!” The kids squealed and bounced around, bubbling over with excitement.

Every single day with them was my new favorite day. Together, we sang songs and played games in English, talked about all the cutest boy bands in Spain, did arts and crafts based on American holidays, and celebrated differences between Spanish and American culture.

Christina, a 3-year old girl with glasses and pigtails, sat on my lap once during the entire class and just stroked my hair and smiled at me while I spoke English. Hugo, a 10-year old boy, always ran up to me when I walked into the room and hugged me tightly around my waist, shouting “I love you, I love you. You are so cool!”

Once when I was telling a group of the 4-year olds about the U.S. and my home, one of them grabbed my glasses and put them on his face. All the others burst into laughter, and they passed my glasses around the circle so they could all try them on. They learned the English word for glasses that day. By the end of my time there, their confidence levels in speaking English had grown, and I couldn’t have been more proud of them!

But to be honest, they probably taught me more than I taught them. There were little things I found delight in, like learning some new Spanish science vocabulary and Spain’s food chart (which has an entire section just for olive oil!). Then there were the special things only locals see — I watched the kids play and laugh with one another, I noticed both the similarities and differences compared to American children, I observed the unique teacher-student dynamic and flow of the class, and I saw firsthand how learning a second language is perceived.

It told a story about the fiery and spirited Spanish culture in a way that is different than walking around in the center of the city. Volunteering provided me with a fresh perspective that made my whole study abroad experience more wholesome.

Then it hit me. As I was walking out of the playground on my last day and looked back at the kids one last time, I saw right before my eyes the positive footprint I left in a city that I have grown to love so much. Even though I am halfway across the world now, a little piece of me is still with them.

And so what I learned most of all through volunteering is this: Giving back while abroad is such a powerful tool that can’t really be used if you are simply on vacation, which is a huge reason why studying abroad is so incredibly special. It is important to realize that you influence a culture just as much as it influences you. You can have an active role in the community and in the preservation and celebration of a culture. Your actions, whether positive or negative, shape both the local and global worldview of the locals you interact with, which in my case were the school children, and I only hope I left them with a more appreciative outlook on their culture and of international cultures.

So during your study abroad trip, don’t only think about how you are changing, but also think about how you are affecting the foreign culture, and what you want that impact to look like.

Melissa Brandle

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