But Looking Up
18.05.2009 14 °C
My days of hearing "pro-fay" and "teacher" being shouted down the hall as student try to catch me to deliver whatever late work or excuse they have have come to a close. When I submit grades on Thursday I will no longer be a university professor. While I can't say I'm sad to be leaving that role behind I have had a hard time feeling accomplished there. I know there is the whole 'exposure to a native English-speaker thing' and I 'brought new perspective' to their routine lessons and yadda yadda, but accomplishment on a personal (albeit selfish) level.
My goals in coming to Colombia were little more than to volunteer with the YMCA and travel in South America. I'll make a pretty good dent in the latter but its the former that I struggle with. Its that particular struggle that has not made me reevaluate my decision to come or stay (not having done either of those would have clearly been a mistake), but 'reconfigure' my expectations.
In all honesty I tried not to have expectations--easier said than done! Not because I was afraid the experience would somehow fall short of those expectations, but more because I really didn't know what to expect. As we became acquainted with the Y and its work, I developed some hopes as to what and where I would be working yet some days even the smallest and most basic of hopes seemed to go unfulfilled. Other days the gratification from some trip or adventure far surpassed any expectation I could have had. Nevertheless, frustration and disappointment embedded themselves pretty firmly into my experience here yet they haven't quite left the destructive path they are known for. Quite the opposite actually.
The things we learn from our struggles far outweigh those we are granted in our triumphs, but we would never know that if we weren't faced with challenges (enter: Monica Zigler- University Professor). Perhaps my tallest mountain was my time at the university, although there were no small shortage of steep foothills leading up to it. It seemed that while my resume ballooned, my connection to the YMCA and its work was collapsing. I always had their support, and my work at the university was in the name of building a reputation for the Y, but that wasn't what I had come for, I thought.
The further I got into the semester the lesser the time I was spending with the organization and people that had brought me down to Colombia in the first place. Initially angry and betrayed-- I had come to work for the Y and yet they still seemed to be pushing me elsewhere-- I wanted to be working with the social programs. The ones they told us the Y in Colombia did so much work with. The ones where you are actually helping people who can't help themselves. But as irony plays its cruel tricks on us all, turns out I was helping exactly those who couldn't help themselves- the YMCA. I was right in the middle of all I thought I was neglecting. I was exactly where there was a need.
In Colombia, aside from a foreigner being a novelty, English speakers are highly sought after. In a nation desperate to be among the ranks of the modern world, they have committed themselves to learning a language which would allow them to operate as a player in the big bad business world. The Y's mission is to serve the greater community in Colombia and the world and the Y was using my talents (English) to serve a community in that way. I had to put on hold my own mixed feelings about teaching English to a country with such a strong sense of pride drawn from their own language to see my work as a service. When I put myself in the Y's shoes for a moment, I could see it. When I saw it as a waste of talent, they saw English as a way to generate interest in programs, further the English teachings and hopefully generate just a little something extra which could be diverted to the social programs I wanted so desperately to be a part of. As the Executive Director and our boss explained to us, "We are building right now. To do what we want and what the people need we have to build relationships, generate interest and make the Y and important part of life in Colombia for ALL". If I have done nothing else here, I have at least helped to build when and where it was most needed. Maybe just a few bricks here and there but a building crumbles without even the smallest part of its foundation, right?
So, in my time here, while I may not have clothed the naked, I have fed those hungry for something a little less literal. I have got a long way to go before I reach any sort of savior status but I have climbed a rather daunting mountain and laid the first few bricks of what we can only hope will be a large and welcoming building.
Quite possibly the greatest gift I have received from all this is the good sense to suck it up, if only for a moment, and if for nothing more that to clear my head and go at it again. Without this (and I have many to thank for it), I don't think I would have discovered this next part:
'The true spirit of volunteerism is not doing what you think will be the most helpful, but being at the will of others who can tell you how you can be the most helpful.' I can't really say that I have mastered this type of humility yet, but I'm working on it and that really is the best any of us can do.