Sometimes we turn our blog over to an Experteer in the field. The month, we asked Emilia for an in-person and in-the-field update while she is supporting an education foundation in Colombia.
There is not much that could be more rewarding in life… I stand in the sun, on the patio of Fundación La Vecina’s school building, and observe the cheerful chaos. A clase de danza is going on—a group of 15 children is learning to dance to traditional Colombian rhythms. These kids were seemingly born with dance and I admire them with envy. Other children run around, from classroom to another, or just for the sake of running. Once in awhile, one of them runs to me and gives me a hug. They talk fast and unclearly so I never understand everything, but I love the fact that they want to tell me how they are and what they are doing in classes. When I ask them if they are having fun or if they like coming to school the answer is always YES. This is an ordinary afternoon amongst the children of Fundación La Vecina. We are in La Boquilla, a very poor neighborhood in Cartagena, but the kids are happy.
My name is Emilia, I am originally from Helsinki, Finland but have lived in Paris for the last six years. I am currently Experteering as a Communications and Project Coordinator with a Dutch-Colombian non-profit organization called Fundación La Vecina. It helps underprivileged children in La Boquilla, an area close to popular tourist destinations, high poverty, and challenging racial divides. Fundación La Vecina provides local children with education, support, and recreational activities to help them have a brighter future.
I recently graduated with a Master’s in International Business and New Communication Technologies projects. I also just finished a one-year internship with Microsoft, where my job was a mix of project management, event organization, marketing and communication. Last autumn I was at a turning point in my life: With my graduate studies finally over, what do I do with my life? Ambitious, curious and interested in so many things I felt that it was too hard to choose. I decided to take some time off before looking for my next job and instead chose to travel. I aimed for South America, a continent I dreamt about but had not yet discovered.
I wanted to do something human-related that was genuinely meaningful — Something where I could help others and at the same time challenge myself to keep growing. I also wanted to see what it was like to work in a country that is completely different from my own, and with people who have a different way of living and thinking. While searching for opportunities, I came across the MovingWorlds website, and was specifically interested in one of the opportunities with Fundación La Vecina. After getting introduced to the people at Fundación we planned our time and a couple of months later I was on the plane on my way to Colombia.
I am the first Experteer at Fundación La Vecina. I talked a lot with my supervisor before I came, shared ideas, and completed the Experteering planning guide with support of MovingWorlds. However, we didn’t take any specific decisions before my arrival. As I had a longer project, the first weeks I spent observing the everyday life at the foundation and defining my action plan. [Editor’s Note: We recommend all Experteers complete the full planning process and training].
From the beginning, I had two main goals for my project: First, to improve project coordination so that the activities would run more smoothly; Second: to spread visibility and to attract more sponsors through the use of social media. My role was to help the director, who is a Dutch woman, and to bring an external look to what the foundation was doing. I still remember my first impression: a little chaotic :) There was information in various places and the communication was very disorganized, yet somehow everyone still seemed to find their place. I quickly understood why an Experteer was needed.
I started with simple tasks: compiling schedules, documenting projects, and encouraging use of technological solutions, such as online agendas and shared documents. It was interesting to notice that what was so natural for me, seemed to be from another planet for my Colombian co-workers. What I also learnt quite fast about the Latin American culture is that everything takes time. “Maybe“, “soon”, “tomorrow” are words that I hear all the time. Things will get done eventually but I know now that there is no point in trying to rush them. Same with basics like having electricity, internet, or air-conditioning working — here you can’t take anything for granted. I’ve learnt to make the most of those moments and, instead of loosing my mind, go spend time with the kids.
As an Experteer I wanted to do a lot, but I now understand that I can’t change the world in one night. This culture has its own specificities and even if my business advice is useful for them, sustainable change takes a long time. Thus, my job has mostly been to analyze and document, to transfer knowledge, and to make plans for my successor. As an example, I am working on a new social media strategy in order to attract and retain sponsors. Even if I would like to have results immediately, I’ve had to accept that all I can do is set up a good base and then follow from far as the local team takes on the project and delivers impact in the long-term.
Working with Colombians, or any other culture for that matter, has had its own challenges as well. I’ve made it a habit to always check twice, and I’ve tried to encourage them to communicate more and to talk about problems instead of denying them. One thing that has helped me a lot in collaborating with Colombians, and in fitting in with the community in La Boquilla at large, is understanding the power of being friendly. Colombians are really the kindest and warm-hearted people I’ve ever met. When they see a lost tourist they go out of their way to help them. A sincere smile solves all the problems, and that is true in business as well.
One of my most important and time-consuming projects has been managing an English teaching program. Good quality English classes are a high priority at Fundación La Vecina, and we use a virtual learning program that has been approved by the Ministry of Education. La Vecina kids are privileged to benefit from this opportunity and to have teachers that speak English. However, English is challenging to learn and the children can still learn a lot more. Moreover, there is still a long way to go to make the kids, and especially their parents, understand the importance of foreign languages. We want to give the kids a chance to later work in tourism or in international companies, but when asked the question they often state: “Why? I don’t need to learn English; I want to stay in La Boquilla like my parents”.
We want to encourage these children to live how they want to live, but we also want to give them the opportunity. Last week a parent, a woman selling pastry on the street — very typical for la Boquilla — came to thank me personally for tutoring her daughter who needs help with her English homework. Another day, one 9-year-old girl told me, her bright and proud eyes shining, how there had been English-speaking tourists in the bus that morning, and how she had introduced herself in English and asked how they were. La Vecina is truly making an impact on children and their parents, and there is a better future out there for these brave children.
I must tell you, I had no previous experience in teaching, and me giving English classes was never part of the plan [Editor’s note: MovingWorlds recommends a TEFL certification if you want to teach overseas]. However, on my second week when I wanted to observe a class, the teacher never came and I was asked to lead the class. That was not the only time we were missing a teacher, since then I have been teaching occasionally to fill in when asked. In a way I like it a lot because I get to be with the kids, and because I’ve had the opportunity to discover the education field, something that was completely new for me. But it has been an exciting experience.
This is not like a school in Europe and the children come from very difficult backgrounds: poverty, drugs, violence, physical and mental abuse. All this results in high levels of communication and concentration problems, which is also why we have a full-time psychologist at the foundation. Many of the kids respond to critique and/ or uncomfortable situations as they do at home or with their friends: being stubborn, wild and at times even violent. Many don’t sit down silently, listen or wait for their turn. If the job description had included teaching in these conditions, I probably wouldn’t have applied, but I’m glad I didn’t know because even if it has been challenging, it has been very enriching as well. Every time I see them learn something new, I’m so proud of them. The children are adorable in their own way, they have a strong character and I know that they will get by in life. At the end of the day, children are the same all over the world. They laugh and play, and they all love listening to Justin Bieber’s Sorry. When I see smiles on their faces, I smile too.
Personally, teaching has been a huge challenge for me and I’m happy about all the positive feedback I’ve gotten. In the beginning, when I accepted to give classes in Spanish, I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. To make the matters worse, the kids wouldn’t behave at all so another teacher came to observe my classes, in order to put some pressure on them. I knew she was there to help, not to judge, but it was still beyond embarrassing. That is one thing I have learnt while Experteering, to just put myself out there, take over any kind of project or task when asked, and do it with a happy face.
Reflection and Advice
What did I wish I had known before coming? I must admit that I didn’t think much about what I was putting myself into before traveling to Cartagena [Editor’s note: Read our resources and region guides to make you a better Experteer]. I came open-minded and without any expectations. Working in an area struck with poverty is not really anything you can prepare yourself for: La Boquilla really is a different world. There are no real roads so when it rains the whole area is inundated and people walk barefoot in the mud. When I complain about a broken phone or heat in the office, these people don’t all have access to privileges such as smartphones, internet or air conditioning. For some children, the meals they have at the foundation are the only food they get.
I had been warned that Colombia is a dangerous country and that I should be extra careful when walking in La Boquilla and in the bus. Instead of terrifying me, I wish more people had told me how genuinely friendly the Colombians are. I’m not afraid at all anymore in La Boquilla because I’ve become part of the community. When I walk in the neighborhood, everybody smiles and greets me when I pass by. These people don’t have much, materially speaking when compared to some parts of the world, but they look content. I see friends and families gathered together, singing, dancing, laughing.
I also feel a part of the community. They know that I am from the foundation and there to be a partner with them, and I cannot imagine them doing anything bad to me. However, living a double life is hard. I work in La Boquilla but spend my evenings and weekends on the fancy touristic side of Cartagena. The difference is mind-blowing, it breaks my heart and I wish I could do more. That is why I often take a break from my business-related missions and go play or sing with the kids. I’ve hugged each and every one of them, listened to their worries, provided extra tutoring support, and even taken tons of funny selfies together. As is the significance of La Vecina, a neighbor, we want to be a neighbor for these children, someone who is there for them when others are not available. I’ve been lucky to have wonderful co-workers, I know that we all care deeply for these kids and that gives a true meaning for the work we do.
How Experteering Changed Me
Experteering has really enabled me to challenge myself. To go out of my comfort-zone, explore new things and get by despite cultural differences. Even if I haven’t had time to do anything ground-breaking, I think that I’ve started many important projects and I’ve brought new ideas and ways of thinking to the organization. Everybody at the foundation has been extremely welcoming and I’ve made a bunch of new friends. I really have liked every minute of it and I’m sad to be leaving soon.
My piece of advice for future Experteers traveling to other countries: be patient, open-minded, and prepared for everything to be different. I have traveled quite a lot in my life and lived abroad so I’ve learnt to adapt. Still, I had never been to South America before and it was hard in the beginning. It took me time to get used to everything in Colombia: heat, language, currency and so on. When you go Experteering overseas, you don’t only start a new job, you are in for a whole new lifestyle. While you are discovering your missions at work, you are also discovering a new country and culture. You are trying not to get lost while taking a bus, finding out where to do your groceries, and doing your best to make friends with others in the same situation. It is not easy, but with the right mindset it will all go well and be worth the trouble.
Lastly, try to take it easy. Appreciate the fact that you are traveling and living a different kind of life. Enjoy simple things, take time for yourself, do something that you would not do at home. And sometimes, if you have the opportunity, just watch the sunset on the beach with no worries in the world.
You can read more about Emilia’s adventures on her personal blog here.
Want to be an Experteer like Emilia? La Vecina is currently looking for someone to follow in Emilia’s footstep. Are you interested, please join MovingWorlds and apply to this project (or email your inquiry to us, or browse our other Experteering projects around the world.