USF Student Volunteers Teaching English in the Galapagos

The idea sounds nice when we mull it over in our heads, but it takes a special level of commitment to seek out and participate in volunteer opportunities. It’s hard enough to balance school, work and a social life — don’t we have better things to do with our time than give it away for free? Senior media studies major Haley Wise spent two months of her summer break teaching English in the Galapagos Islands. Even though she wasn’t paid for her work, Haley returned to San Francisco a richer person than before she left. I had a chance to sit down with her and learn about her experience.

Last year, Haley was studying abroad in London and struggling to find summer internship opportunities back in San Francisco. KC Steblay, a business administration senior at USF, had kept in touch with a friend he made on a previous trip to the Galapagos, a province of Ecuador. Through this friend, Haley, who is dating KC, found a chance better than she had ever hoped: two volunteers were needed to teach English in Puerto Ayora for two months, spending the first month aboard an ecology-focused cruise ship, educating the crew, and the second working with the staff of a green resort. Despite a limited grasp of Spanish, Haley and KC soon found themselves amidst the pristine beauty of the islands over 600 miles west of the South American continent — and teaching.

Haley didn’t have much time to get settled before her volunteer work began. “I barely know Spanish, have never taught anything before in my life, and I’m expected to lead a class! I had to write my own lesson plans, and basically start from square one with native Galapagans that had little to no English experience.” With limited resources, Haley had to do whatever she could to keep her students engaged. Her students, however, were as excited to learn as Hayley was daunted by her task. KC believes that eagerness came from appreciation: “One weekend, I worked at an after-school program with little kids, and you could just see that they didn’t really want to be there. But the people on that boat, they knew it was important for them and they wanted to learn. They’d come up to me out of class just to learn a new word.”

Aboard the ship, the M/V Santa Cruz, Haley describes her classroom setting as “hectic.” “I assumed there would be some sort of curriculum set out for us, or some guidelines to follow,” she recalls. “But no. I was instructed to ‘just teach them English.’” Though Haley and KC were able to teach joint classes the first two weeks, Haley soon found herself in charge of four hour-long classes each day, ranging in skill from beginners with no English training whatsoever to a fluent group that needed help fine-tuning pronunciation. With up to 10 students in every class, Haley had to ensure that the pace and content of her classes matched the student’s skill level, and spent hours each day outside of the classroom preparing for the next day’s lessons. Sometimes her lesson plan included songs, competitions, and even a game that involved nothing more than a beach ball, napkin, and box to help her students learn.

It wasn’t all hard work though: while on board the M/V Santa Cruz, Haley got to make an almost daily routine of exploring the abundant reefs of the archipelago with a snorkel.

Back on land for the second month of her trip, Haley lived and volunteered at the Finch Bay Eco Hotel, just outside the beach town of Puerto Ayora. There she worked with the resort’s restaurant and bar staff, teaching two two-hour class sessions per day. She still had to create her own lesson plans, but fortunately some good did come from all her extra work: “I got a lot of great experience, and now I could see myself teaching or tutoring English to another new learner.”

Like any traveler in a new place, Haley had to adjust to some aspects of culture on the remote islands.  “I guess I didn’t really realize that coming from London I was actually going to a third-world country,” Haley said. “We get to our hotel and the guy who opened the door of our cab has a huge shotgun strapped to his chest!” Warm welcomes like this weren’t all she had to get used to. The country is much more religious and conservative than any environment she had lived in before. Haley told me many 18 to 22-year-olds there already have children of their own, and some of the locals had trouble understanding that Haley and KC were traveling together and not already married. “It’s a much more traditional society,” she said. “Even the way I could dress was very different. I brought bathing suits and shorts, which I’d pack for any vacation to a tropical island. But with having to jump right in to work…” She paused with a smile. “I had to buy a bunch of pants.”

Haley also was able to see past cultural differences. “If you want to travel the world, you can’t expect everyone to agree with you. You have to accept people for who they are and realize why their views might be different than yours. They’re still good people, and they still have a lot to offer.” Despite language barriers and limited classroom resources, Haley feels that her students learned a lot from her English classes. Sometimes they would surprise her with a special dessert after dinner, and some even spent their own pocket money on souvenirs and mementos for Haley to bring home from her adventure. Her students nicknamed Haley “la mejor professora:” the best teacher.

Haley found her experience enriching and rewarding. “It was a lot of time to give up, but you get so much out of an experience when you see how appreciative the people you’re helping are of the work you do. I felt lucky to just be in this beautiful place, and my students were so grateful.” Even though at first she felt overwhelmed by her task, Haley found a lot of satisfaction in her work. “It’s amazing to see how incredibly thankful people can be when you just help them even the smallest bit,” she said. The feeling that Haley returned with will inspire her to continue volunteering. Our chat certainly inspired me to see where in the world volunteering can take me, and Haley knows that anyone who pursues an opportunity to help others will find the same feeling of enrichment and satisfaction.

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