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Posted by Jessica on Apr 1, 2009
Seeing the World Without a Passport

Being back home again after Mexico City means getting back into the swing of things. (It also means writing about our time in Mexico City too!) Between work and time with Tim, I enjoy spending a few hours each week as a volunteer tutor to students in the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program at our local library. Not only does it remind me of teaching in Cambodia, but I've always really enjoyed volunteering.

(ESOL is more commonly known as ESL or English as a Second Language. However ESL implies that someone's second language is English; whereas many folks may be learning English as their third, forth, or even fifth language! The term ESOL may be a bit PC-oriented, but it's probably more accurate too.)

I started as a volunteer tutor in the ESOL program when we first moved to this area. After our trip around the world, we had settled in Washington, DC for a year – only to quickly discover we were no longer city folks! Packing up everything (cat and dog included, of course), we headed north to one of our favorite areas of the country: Cape Cod.

Here, surrounded by nature with the water's edge just a stone's throw away from our little cottage, we've really come into our own. Of course, that includes being active in local events and up-to-date in town politics. (As a side note: I had no idea small town politics was so thoroughly enjoyable to witness. I am a huge fan of attending town meetings and Tim and I plan to bring popcorn to the next one!) And it was during our first visit to our picture-perfect local library that I saw a flyer searching for people to volunteer as ESOL tutors. It seems our library's ESOL program was bursting with students who needed tutoring, but not enough tutors to teach. Luckily quite a few volunteers signed up, making the Volunteer Coordinator and the students very happy.

For nearly a year, I tutored a really amazing student. He was from Cape Verde (off the coast of Africa) and his native language was Portuguese, but he also spoke quite a bit of Spanish. Our tutoring sessions would be a delightful mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, English, and charades.

His first goal was to pass the driving test in Massachusetts. (I won't mention how he was driving without a license to our tutoring sessions though. Nope, not a word!) So initially we began by reviewing phrases a driving test instructor might say to him during the driving test – things like "Stop here" or "Turn left at the next light." Next we moved on to car-related words, like "brakes" or "seatbelt." (Remember: he knew how to use these things, he just didn't know the English word for them yet.) And we spent quite a few sessions (much to the amusement of other library patrons) in the library's parking lot – me asking him questions like "Where is the rearview mirror?" and him pointing with a huge grin at the hood of the car. Soon enough, though, he was ready for his test and passed with flying colors.

After his driving test, we moved on to other pertinent areas of his life. He worked in the laundry room at a nearby nursing home and he had two young daughters with his American wife. Words and sentences relating to laundry, emergencies, health, food, and shopping became part of our shared vocabulary. (I say "shared" because I was learning almost as much Portuguese as he was English!) Eventually we started working on his reading and writing in English. At first he could write only incomplete sentences, but toward the end of our time together he could write well-developed paragraphs.

Eventually, though, he graduated from the library's program on to a really amazing full-time English course. And for a few weeks after his graduation I was a bit down: not because I wasn't excited for him, but because I knew how lucky I had been to have him as my student! A student who is eager to learn, quick to apply lessons, and always ready with a smile really makes an hour fly by. That said, I was pretty confident I'd be matched with an equally fun student after returning from Mexico City.

And so this morning – and the reason for my babbling today – I met with the Volunteer Coordinator of the ESOL program at the library. We spoke about several students, but the one both she and I thought I'd be the best match with is a Thai woman who has been living in the US for a few years. She's a stay-at-home Mom who can converse in English, but wants to improve her communication skills. And needless to say, after all our time in Thailand and our volunteer work for Elephant Nature Foundation, I'm incredibly eager to work with a Thai student.

I'm really looking forward to the sing-songy tones of Thai becoming part of my week again. And of course I'm looking forward to teaching and hopefully helping someone learn English too. But the things I'm looking forward to most are the same things I look forward to while traveling: making a connection with someone, exposing myself to new ideas, and learning a bit more about the amazing world we live in. I'd say that's not bad for a few hours worth of volunteer work each week!

So for all the armchair travelers out there? Check out your local library and see if they have an ESOL or ESL program. I'm willing to bet you'll have a fantastic time not only helping someone else out, but you'll also see more of the world without even needing a passport.

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April 10, 2009 at 8:55am
I can think of an additional benefit (besides "armchair travel";), too. You guys are much braver than many when it comes to third world travel. There are some places that quite a few of us would never visit because of concerns for safety and convenience (you won't catch ME near the horn of Africa). However, they can be experienced vicariously, at least a bit, through such volunteer work.
Tim the hedgehog
April 12, 2009 at 6:32pm

There are some places that quite a few of us would never visit because of concerns for safety and convenience (you won't catch ME near the horn of Africa).

Aw, shucks, Noah. I was just going to ask you if you two would be interested in heading to Somaliland with us.

Somaliland is the autonomous western third of Somalia, currently considered the be-all-end-all for hardcore backpackers. It's far less violent and dangerous than the other two-thirds of the country, which means we'll almost certainly be able to make it a day or two before being kidnapped and/or killed. :)

The Lonely Planet guide says we can hire ourselves a police escort at the bargain rate of $15/day! How can you resist?

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