The Call to Serve Others

My volunteer service opportunity in Mendoza, Argentina changed my abroad experience. When on international exchange, it’s very easy to rely on your program friends, speaking English and experiencing your new home through eyes of a visitor. I know this because I spent a lot of time with friends from the U.S., speaking English, and pretending I was on vacation. I even frequented the local Starbucks (shameful, I know). Homesickness is real, and although it’s nice to have friends to relate your experiences with, I had to remember the reason I went to Argentina.
I chose the IFSA-Butler program in Mendoza because I wanted to fully immerse myself in another culture. I wanted to improve my Spanish language skills, and I wanted to experience life as an Argentine. One of the most immersive things I did was volunteer for a school whose students were people with disabilities. IFSA-Butler had an amazing staff in Mendoza, and one of the professors encouraged volunteer service, and made connections for those students who wanted to participate in service opportunities. I was lucky enough to be the only student to volunteer for Convivir, assisting with teaching gym and theater.

The Adventure Begins

My first day was one filled with nerves. I was apprehensive that I wouldn’t have the vocabulary, wouldn’t be able to communicate with the students and wouldn’t be helpful to the professors. After just five minutes inside Convivir, my nerves were gone. I realized that although sometimes I struggled with my Spanish, the students and professors helped and reassured me every step of the way; they were so accepting. It was this experience that taught me that as long as you dedicate yourself to something, you will be able to do it. The difference in my speaking from my first day and my last day was impressive. By pushing myself, I had improved drastically.
Not only did my language skills improve, my personal skills improved too. I participated in school events, bonding with the students and their families. I established real, amazing relationships that I will forever be grateful for. My last day at Convivir was a sad one; myself and the students were very emotional. I had become close friends with many students, and leaving them was very hard. However, I left knowing I had made an impact in their lives, and they surely had changed mine for the better. The students and I overcame language and cultural barriers, which taught me most challenges can be overcome with some hard work and a lot of love.

Looking Back on my Experience

Through this experience, I learned a lot about myself. Everyday I volunteered I had the chance to use the public transportation system. I did not have phone service in Argentina, so instead of relying on my iPhone, as I do at home, I had to ask my host mom and bus drivers for help. At first I thought this was an impossible task, until I realized most of the world doesn’t have little robots in their hands that lead them blindly through life. By disconnecting, and reaching out to people for help, I learned the ins and outs of the bus system in Mendoza, and was able to learn more about the city. Just by riding the bus, I discovered which streets intersected, and soon memorized the city grid. I met people on the bus, and I enjoyed the beautiful city as I traveled from classes to Convivir. I learned that I am an independent person, and that I often like to figure things out my own. I also learned that sometimes asking for help is a much better option. Convivir gave me the opportunity to explore my personality strengths and weaknesses, inside and outside of the classroom.
I learned a lot during my time in Mendoza, but nothing is as precious to me as the relationships I developed at Convivir. I faced challenges in understanding and responding to students, in learning how to best help professors, and in my own confidence level. Back home in Colorado, I try to make every relationship a strong one, built on understanding and admiration. From my experiences abroad, I can better relate to people, and I know what makes me happy.  What I learnedis that by being yourself and dedicating yourself to something, the challenges you once saw as gigantic boulders, will soon shrink into tiny pebbles. Personal relationships can be built despite language and cultural barriers, and when they are, they mean even more.
Sarah Carpenter was a Public Policy major at  the University of Denver, and studied abroad with IFSA through the University of Denver in Mendoza in the fall of 2016.