A Year as an English Teaching Assistant at UniBoyacá
When I arrived in Colombia I had a lot of expectations, both of myself and of the country. I expected to visit beautiful places, eat lots of exotic food, dance to great music, and meet a lot of fun people. I also expected to make an impact on my students as an English teacher. Honestly, though the experience hasn´t been without setbacks, I can say that those expectations were more than met.
Of Tunja and my university, expectations were a bit fuzzier. I remember the night I arrived here after a long winding bus ride in the pouring rain and saw the lights winding up the mountainsides and I asked myself, “Good God- where have I ended up?” But I arrived at a house with a welcoming family, and the next day the sun rose over the pastures and I saw the green patchwork of farms climbing up both sides of the valley, and I knew I was in the right place.
My welcome in the university was ever warmer. I have been lucky over the last 10 months to works with a handful of wonderful people. I was surprised to find that my colleagues were all young- just a couple years older than me I am- and all relaxed, generous people. None of the stress of clashing personalities, egos, competition than one can find in a university department in the US, just friendship and lots of laughs.
The university itself, I must say, feels much more like a high school. It is a self-contained complex, there are only a few thousand students, who are relatively young- 16, 17 and up. And the students within each major have all their classes together. The benefit is that a sense of familiarity and comfort pervades the campus; never can I walk from the office to class without running into several people who I know and say hi to. The downside is that sometimes the students act like high school students. They often chat too much in class or whine about too many assignments- “Ay, proooofe!”
Still, we almost always had a good time in the classes. The most best thing about UniBoyacá was that I was given a lot of autonomy in my classes. We dealt with music, religion, politics, drugs, and all sorts of engaging, relevant themes of my choosing. I generally had good access to media, internet, cd players, and the copies I needed for good interactive teaching.
But let´s be honest: English teaching was mostly a good excuse to come to Colombia! The most enrichment for me took place outside the classroom. Let´s start with music. First, it must be noted that music pervades every aspect of life in Colombia. Not only is the country a center for an amazing diversity of genres- from salsa, to vallenato, cumbia, carranga, música llanera, and more- but you can never walk down a street or get on a bus where there is not some sort of danceable music blasting. And for people from the US, every Colombian is a dance teacher. All you have to do is go to a club and ask people to dance and they will teach you plenty. The difference between my steps in samba, meringue, vallenato and especially salsa from when I arrived to today is enormous. Heck, I could easily go back to the US and start a dance academy! I also had the blessing of joining the contemporary music group at the university, which meant hanging out with people who love to sing and jam, and from whom I learned a huge repertoire of songs and gave numerous concerts.
Then there are the natural wonders of Colombia. It is not an underestimate to call it one of the most diverse and breathtaking countries in the world. In Tunja I live in the altiplano at 10,000 feet where it is more or less October weather all year round, but I can literally hop on a bus and in little more than an hour I can be in a semi-arid Mediterranean climate on one side of the mountain, or in another direction a tropical valley with sugar plantations on the other. I´ve almost become desensitized to sweeping mountain landscapes or gorgeous waterfalls and hot springs, because they are so abundant here. And all that, of course, is just day trips. Longer breaks have allowed me to travel to the spectacular beaches of the coast, the coffee triangle, the crystalline rivers and swimming holes in the Eastern plains, and so on.
Then there´s the food; diverse climates mean every food you could imagine. Delicious arepas and tamales, juicy grass-fed meat (feedlots are non-existent here), and more tropical fruits than you can count on all your fingers and toes. Every day I eat at least one mango, one giant avocado, half a papaya. And farmers markets never went out of style here. Every weekend there´s a huge one a few blocks from my house where I can buy fruits and veggies, and spices in volume, plus natural raw milk and free range eggs. And the campesinos here hold fast to their culture: their endearing formalities, their work-worn hands, their wool ruanas.
Finally, I could never conclude an account of my time here without mentioning all of the wonderful people who have filled my life here. Colombians as a rule are the most welcoming, generous people you could imagine. The humblest family will share a meal, open up their homes, and converse with a wonderful curiosity and openness to other cultures. Unlike in the US, there is no problem if you want to strike up a conversation with anyone anywhere, and generally you don´t even have to take the initiative- Colombians will take it for you.
Is the country a paradise? Of course not. But it could be. Colombia is still cursed with violence and crime, generally linked to the control of its wealth of natural resources. The greed of its almost universally corrupt politicians, its mafia and militant networks, and of course of exploitative multinational corporations has caused innumerable suffering. There are still no-go zones in remote jungles and mountains, as well as certain neighborhoods in big cities, where any outsider risks kidnapping or worse. But the same could be said of certain impoverished areas in the US. The fact is that despite these sad realities, the vast majority of the country is safe and the vast majority of Colombians live happily and share their joy with visitors. Slowly but surely, security and quality of life is improving, and part of my mission is to help destroy the unjust stereotypes of violence and drugs we hold in the US.
Did I make a difference in a year in Colombia? I believe that I did. I was able to have thousands of direct, sincere conversations with students, friends, and strangers about the reality of my country and my culture. I shared my music. I taught about social realities both in the US and globally in my classes. I taught a high school class the beauty of composting, organic gardening, and making homemade cheese. I showed people that the US is so much more than pop music, fast food, and consumerism, and did my best to build solidarity and friendship with everyone who crossed my path, and in doing so developed a love for the land and its people. And so, as this year comes to a close, I have nothing but gratitude for the times I´ve had here. ¡Viva Colombia- tierra querida!
See an excellent Fulbright interview with Noah on Youtube!