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Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Student Volunteer & Future International Aid Professional

 

We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success… 

Meet Nicole—a Spanish speaking George Mason University Community Health major with a concentration in Global Health.

Ask Away: 5 Questions banner image with Nicole portrait

1. Why Spanish? How did you begin learning the language?

In middle school, you had a choice of learning French, Spanish, or Italian. Having grown up in New York, if you weren’t hearing English spoken on the street, you were hearing the Spanish language, which really intrigued me. So I began my journey to learn Spanish when I was 13 years old, and I really enjoyed it.

It was just such a beautiful language, it was hard to not want to learn more and more as I continued taking language classes throughout my education. I used every resource available to me throughout high school to improve my Spanish, even paying extra for two college-level Spanish classes in my senior year of high school as part of a small group of six students. These classes involved language but also history and culture, making them even more well-rounded and intriguing to me.

In the end, I feel more knowledgeable and more equipped to continue my education having learned what I did through this language.

2. Can you tell us a little bit more about the Hogar San Francisco de Asis and your work there?
Nicole with a laughing toddler on her lap
Nicole at the Hogar in Peru

The Hogar is a home in Chaclacayo founded by an American doctor from Tampa, Florida, who decided to give up his luxury life working for Emory hospital as a neonatal and pediatric specialist to dedicate his time to the children of Peru. The Hogar allows children of varying physical ailments to live and receive treatment in the home until their condition improves or they turn 18 years old, as our home can only accommodate children from infancy to 18.

The children come from provinces deep in the jungle or high up in mountain villages where there are no economic resources or clinics within any sort of feasible distance from their homes to receive the treatment necessary. We get requests on a daily basis to take in children who need our help, but there is a process to determine whether or not the family is suited to care for their child on their own, or if it is necessary for them to come and live with us for their treatment. If we accept a child into the home, their family does not have to pay a single thing for the child: the Hogar pays for food, clothing, education, and everything else involving the child’s care.

As volunteers, we are responsible for helping the house to run smoothly, getting the kids ready for school, doing the dishes for 40+ children at every meal, and traveling hours into Lima by bus with said children to bring them to their medical appointments, operations, and therapies. We also are the people they come to for advice, love and arms to cry in when they miss their families, and a best friend when things get a little too much.

3. What inspired your first trip to Peru and the Hogar, and what makes each visit to Chaclacayo unique?

Thankfully, through my high school I learned of several different volunteer opportunities, and that is where I was first introduced to the Hogar in Peru. My high school offered a one-week trip to the Hogar the summer going into my senior year, it did not take much for me to decide that this is what I wanted to do: I absolutely adore children, the Spanish language, and the idea of immersing myself in a different culture.

After my first trip, I was hooked on this little home at the foot of the Andes mountains. Now, fast forward three years, I just got home from my seventh volunteer trip there, spending the last two months serving the home I fell in love with as a 16-year-old girl.

Honestly, I think what makes each trip more and more unique as I keep returning to Chaclacayo is my confidence in using the Spanish language.

I feel more confident traveling throughout Peru on my own and striking up conversations with other Peruvians.

I feel very much at peace when I walk into the home and I know that I will only be speaking Spanish for this extended period of time, and I think that’s the absolute most awesome part about learning another language.

4. How do your Spanish skills enhance your work at the home? Is there one memorable moment involving the Spanish language that stands out in particular?

My Spanish skills definitely enhance my work at the home. I feel less of a burden to the employees and to the doctor when I’m on my own—figuring out what needs to be done, what doctors need to be seen, and what bus I need to jump on in the morning. You definitely become more independent as a volunteer and as an acting part of the house the more Spanish you know.

Also knowing more and more of the language has allowed me to grow extremely close to the employees who work in the home on a day-to-day basis, building a very cohesive relationship in support of the kids. I also have more responsibilities in the home now that I speak the language: I take the kids on my own to their appointments, I travel back and forth on my own, and I am comfortable enough to stay overnight with children who have operations and are too young to stay on their own.

I think my most memorable moment regarding Spanish from all my different trips to Peru was probably one time in the hospital after a really long day with a very fussy four-year-old. I noticed an older Peruvian woman staring at me, which I am used to after all this time spent in the country (sadly, a lot of people have preconceived judgments against “gringas” who are abroad to help children, because they don’t know our intentions or they may not trust the land we come from). As she was staring at me, the four-year-old was getting even more upset, and I just didn’t know what to do. I began to brace myself for the normal comments I hear from women, but I was caught by surprise: the woman got up, came over, sat next to me, and struck up a conversation while simultaneously trying to calm the child down with me, asking me questions about my life and what I was doing in Peru.

She eventually got called into an appointment, but she said “Thank you for loving our country and our children” and smiled before walking away.

I am so thankful that I was able to speak Spanish and talk to such a great woman, and that by the end of it we both understood each other despite being from different ends of the earth.

That’s why I love speaking this language: You understand more than just their language, you understand them. 

5. What role does Spanish play in your future career plans?

Because I have such a place in my heart for South America since my work in Peru, I would really love to continue learning Spanish and improving on the skills I already have. The work I want to do in my future career is focused on the provinces and the forgotten villages in different South American countries where the population would have no knowledge of English. Yes, I would most likely have people with me who could provide educational seminars and speak to community members for me on these projects, but I think the real point of this work is to be able to do that myself and make that difference for those people on my own, not through an interpreter.

BONUS QUESTION: Any funny stories about speaking Spanish in Peru?

During my earlier trips, before understanding what I heard was effortless, I still really needed to look at people to understand what they were saying to me. One time, I was traveling back by bus with an infant whose legs were in casts and a 12-year-old boy. I was falling asleep with the baby on my lap and woke up to a woman touching the baby’s feet; she looked terrified and concerned. When she asked me a question that I didn’t hear well and wasn’t paying enough attention in order to understand, I did what I normally did at that stage of my Spanish learning: I just replied “no” and turned around to close my eyes once again.

I woke up to the woman hysterically crying in the seat in front of me, and then looked to the boy I was accompanying to find some sort of guidance on what had just happened. He, in turn, spoke with the woman and said, “Oh my God, yes, the baby has feet. She just doesn’t understand much Spanish, I’m so sorry!”

So moral of that story is not to say “no” to someone if you don’t know what they’re saying, because then they’ll think the infant doesn’t have feet and start crying on the bus because of you…  Oops!

Are you interested in Spanish scholarships, university programs, or student testimonials? Visit our Lead with Spanish page to learn more. Or maybe you’re thinking about an international internship or volunteer experience in any language? Check out our Study Abroad Programs page for information on available opportunities.

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