By: Tori Baldassini
First a little bit about me: My name is Tori and I am currently a five month Program Director at Manna’s Ecuador site. When I was thinking about joining Manna Project last March, I was very nervous about what my five months in Ecuador would have in store for me. I hope that you will find my list helpful if you are interested in becoming a Program Director. To learn more about the role of Program Director, please visit this site: http://www.mannaproject.org/program-director/.
1. An Open Mind
Working in a foreign country and Immersing yourself in another culture is very different from working in the United States. If you come in with the same expectations, you may find yourself disappointed. For example, in Ecuadorian culture, punctuality is not as emphasized as it is in an American workplace. As a part of my job, I teach English classes and oftentimes my students will stroll up to my class half-an-hour late. Sometimes, the American in me gets frustrated with this and I interpret their tardiness as a sign that they don’t respect me and the work I put in to prepare for class. But then I take a step back and remember that their culture and upbringing is not the same as mine and that it is unfair to judge them based on my cultural values. Instead, I have learned to adjust my lesson plans to anticipate that some of my students may arrive late. I now start every class with review material so my late-comers won’t miss any new material. Working with an open mind ensures that my students do the best they can in my class!
2. An Open Stomach
Food is something that is very important to me and I view the opportunity to work abroad as an opportunity to try new and exciting foods! Sometimes other cultures eat things that may seem unappetizing to the American eater. For example, a very popular Ecuadorian dish is called cuy, or in English, guinea pig. I tried cuy and it wasn’t my favorite. It is a very gamey meat so I probably wouldn’t order it again. However, I was glad that I was brave enough to try an authentic dish that so many Ecuadorians adore. A more successful example would be when I tried pescado encocado, a very popular dish on the coast of Ecuador. It consists of a fillet of fish with a sauce made from coconut milk. I had never tried anything like that in the US so I wasn’t sure if I would like it, but from the first taste I knew it was the right choice! It was absolutely delicious- everyone at my table had food envy! For this exact reason, I always think it’s helpful to come to another country with an open stomach- you never know what foods you might discover!
3. Something from Home
Homesickness is almost inevitable when living abroad and I think it is important to be prepared for when it hits. One way to battle homesickness is to maintain hobbies or activities that are part of your regular schedule in the United States. When my head is spinning from too much Spanish and I am craving some good old Vermont cheddar (the cheese in Ecuador is a huge disappointment to me and a common source of homesickness), I like to have some alone time in my room and watch American shows on Netflix. For the hour I am watching Desperate Housewives (they have it on Netflix here!), I am able to forget about the stresses of being away from my home and culture. That type of mental break is essential to combating homesickness when it strikes. Netflix is my “something from home.” For other Program Directors, they continue their home workout routines, read books in English, or practice yoga. I think the key is to identify what your “thing” will be before you come to your new country, and then make sure that you have the things you need to continue your hobby.
4. Research, Research, and More Research
This item is something I wish I had thought more about before coming to Ecuador. The more you know about the country you are going to, the easier it will be to adapt to that culture. Arriving in a new environment can be overwhelming; there are a lot of differences to process. For me, since I am only living in Ecuador for five months, I have found myself very stressed out about all the things I need to do and see before I come home. I think if I had done more research about Ecuador before I arrived, I could have hit the ground running when I got here, which would have relieved some of that stress. Another preparation I would suggest would be to practice your Spanish! No matter your speaking level, I think it never hurts to get some practice in before you immerse yourself in a different language! Whether it means playing basic games on Duolingo or practicing speaking on a language exchange app, Spanish practice will make everyday activities, like ordering coffee or trying to find a public bathroom, significantly easier!
I know that immersing yourself in a new culture can be a bit scary, but ultimately becoming a Program Director is the opportunity of a lifetime! I’m only three months into my experience and I have already learned so much. I know I will go back to the United States with memories and friendships I will cherish forever!