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An Education Internship: Building Cross-Cultural Understanding

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Sandy beaches, bright sunshine, a frosty Coca Cola. This is the common conception of Mexico, and when I returned home after studying abroad, this is what many of my friends, family and peers asked me about: “How were the beaches?” or “Was it warm all the time?” While I did my fair share of traveling and soaking up the sun while abroad, my time there consisted of so much more than that. I was an immersive learning experience in which I experienced rich Mexican culture. It was an eye opening experience in which I learned about myself and my relation to the world around me.
Studying abroad with IFSA offers many opportunities to make the most of your experience through cultural immersion, living and studying in a new country. IFSA offers countless volunteer, independent research, and internship opportunities.

Across the Border, Across the Classroom

At my home university of Gettysburg College, I study Spanish and education. Since I need to devote a semester to student teaching, I needed to maximize my credits abroad so that I would be able to accomplish all that I needed in my 4 years. I worked closely with ISFA and my home university to craft a specialized education internship at a local school in Mérida, Mexico. This internship allowed me to gain experience working in a classroom and to make the most of my time abroad, all while earning credit at my home university. As a future educator, I want to be an elementary school Spanish teacher. Working with the students in Mérida helped me gain experience working with children in the classroom.
I worked at Colegio Teresiano Enrique de Ossó, a bilingual school located in the heart of downtown Mérida. During my internship, I worked in various middle school classes, which were all taught in English, including geography, oral communication, and P.E.T, which is a class devoted to helping students prepare for the preliminary English test that they are required to take at the end of the academic year. I assisted teachers with homework, grading, and other tasks within the classroom. As the semester progressed, I was able to teach a few lessons of my own. Planning and executing these lessons was difficult, as the schools in México functioned very differently than I was used to back home.  

The Classroom Experience: Expectation vs. Reality

In general, the concept of time is very different in Mérida. On time is early, and most classes did not start until at least 15 minutes past. People do not seem to be as strict about punctuality. This is just the Latinx way. Secondly, the way the classrooms operated, at least in the school in which I was working, was much less strict than I had anticipated.  If students were loud and chatty, teachers didn’t seem so concerned with reining them back in. Instead, teachers took on the mentality that those who were listening would learn and do well, while those who were not paying attention would be at a disadvantage. In this sense, it was the responsibility of each individual student to pay attention. At first, I found this to be jarring, as it was so different from what I have experienced working in American classrooms. At times, I found myself wanting to quiet the students, but I tried to refrain from doing so, as I was not the lead teacher. As these classes were focused on helping students practice their English-speaking skills, there was not a set lesson plan and the class was very fluid and flexible.
When it came time for me to prepare and present my own lesson, I had a lot of leeway, as there was not a rigid lesson plan that I needed to follow. In this sense, I was afforded a lot of freedom when choosing my topic, but it was also challenging to focus in on certain aspects of my lesson. When I presented my lesson, I tried to quiet the students down while I was talking, and I think this surprised them, as they were not used to this type of behavior within the classroom. When I asked them to quiet down, I did not have any major problems. I think this shows the respect for elders which is a prevalent cultural trait among young people. Additionally, I was seen as a guest within their school, which also afforded me respect among the students. In general, this really challenged me and pushed me out of my comfort zone, as I learned to work in and adapt to a new environment. I gained invaluable experience that will help me as I prepare to student teach and become a future educator.

Using unique teaching techniques to bridge the cross-cultural divide

Participating in this internship enriched my study abroad experience as it allowed for a cross-cultural exchange and it helped with my Spanish language skills. Although I helped students practice their English-speaking skills within the classroom, they were always excited and willing to help me practice my Spanish outside of the classroom. These interactions with the students helped me to learn colloquial terms and vocabulary that are used more informally but frequently within the region. Additionally, because Colegio Teresiano is a bilingual school, it fosters cross-cultural knowledge and understanding. For example, Thanksgiving is not celebrated in México, but the school held their own Thanksgiving celebration, full of similar foods and traditions to that of the United States. I was able to be there and share with the students the significance behind this holiday and why it is widely celebrated within the United States. I was also fortunate enough to share in unique Mexican holidays and traditions during my time abroad, such as Día de Independencia (Independence Day) on September 16th and Día de los Muertos on November 1st and 2nd. While the school was not in session during these national holidays, I was very interested to see how different families and communities observe and celebrate these traditions. Within my host family, for example, we made an altar decorated with colorful candy sugar skulls, candles, photos, and the favorite foods of the deceased. It was during these times that I felt closest to my family and the communities in which I was living.
My experience abroad, especially my education internship, deeply enriched my experience as it fostered cross-cultural exchange and immersion. It challenged me and pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I have gained innumerable life skills, knowledge and friendships as a result. My experience at Colegio Teresiano has renewed my passion to continue studying Spanish and education. I would encourage anyone who is interested in participating in an internship abroad to do so! Jump in! Make the most of your experience! It will be unforgettable, I promise!
Mo Pulte is a Spanish and Education major at Gettysburg College and she studied abroad with IFSA on the Mérida Universities Program in MéridaMéxico in the Fall of 2018.