The University of Iowa

From Iowa to Seville and back again - working as a remote language assistant

April 20th, 2020

Today is Saturday, April 18, 2020, and if all had gone as expected, I would have spent today in Seville, Spain, practicing my new flamenco dance moves and gearing up for the world-famous Feria de Abril, an annual celebration marked by incredible exhibitions of music, dance, and delicious food. It’s a week where you can find just about the entire population of Spain concentrated in the already lively, bustling capital of Andalusia. But this year, the long-awaited spectacle will have to take a backseat to social distancing, stringent stay-at-home orders, and other health and safety precautions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Me (blue plaid shirt), trying my best to follow along in my flamenco class

I returned home prematurely from my semester abroad in Seville on March 14th, with a considerable amount of sadness and uncertainty. I had set several goals for this semester that I could only see myself accomplishing while abroad. The roadmap that I had drawn out depended on achieving these goals, and to add insult to injury, the Spring 2020 graduation ceremony I had been looking forward to for years would be canceled. It felt like this lost opportunity had compromised my future. This was my mentality in the worst of times, but it wasn’t long after returning to the United States that I’d be offered a chance to change that mentality.


Plaza de Espana, Seville, Spain

I was contacted by the study abroad staff asking whether I would be willing to do some weekly one-on-one educational sessions with primary school students in Seville who have lost the opportunity to go to school, see their friends, and practice their English. They reached out to me because in Seville, I volunteered as a culture and language assistant at a bilingual school. As a volunteer, my roles and responsibilities were pretty clearly laid out, and I worked with professionals who knew what they were doing and were there to guide me. So, when I was offered this new opportunity, I was quite hesitant. In this environment, there would be no professionally crafted lesson plans, no guidelines to follow, and no way to know what I was getting myself into. I was no personal online English tutor, and I figured this just was out of my scope of practice. But, when I went to reply with my decision, for some reason, I just decided “sure, why not?”

Henceforth I started to meet twice a week with 11-year-old Carlos Trujillo over WhatsApp video calls to chat, play games, and read books and articles on the internet. Despite our meeting time being a tad early for my new quarantine sleep schedule (10:00 AM PST), I can always count on our calls to brighten up my day. We’ve done all kinds of activities including reading the Chronicles of Narnia together, writing mad libs, and listening for new English vocabulary words in clips from some of his favorite Marvel movies. I decided to do these simple activities with him hoping to provide him with an escape from the monotony of traditional English class activities, and also that he might learn something. But I’ve realized that I’m learning a lot, too.

 

Me and Carlos, who is smiling smugly after beating me in an English Marvel trivia Kahoot

Aside from these activities, we do a lot of talking. We talk about our families, our interests, our cultures, and we often talk about how the pandemic has affected our lifestyles. Carlos, unfortunately, had to miss out on the chance to go to Germany to participate in a tennis competition. It was something that, I could tell, he really was looking forward to, and he was upset about not having the chance to participate. However, Carlos did not dwell on this topic for long. He quickly changed the subject to how he’s been able to keep in touch with his best friends, how he was getting ready to make a seven-layer cake for the first time, and how he has continued practicing tennis during the quarantine. He definitely wasn’t happy about being robbed of that past opportunity, but he certainly would not let it compromise his future.

"Had I maintained the tunnel vision I had, and refused to embrace the unpredictable, my intercultural experience could’ve ended right then and there. But I made an attempt to navigate, rather than avoid, the uncertainty, and as a result I have a new perspective, a new friend, and a newfound drive to do the most with the hand I’ve been dealt."

Something I struggled with a lot in Seville was communicating smoothly in Spanish. Despite spending years learning phrases and rehearsing conversations, I often found myself stumbling, forgetting words, and not quite understanding those who I spoke with. That is because every conversation we have is full of uncertainty. We can’t plan out a conversation. We can’t predict how someone will react to the things we say, or vice versa. I realized that the key to communication in a foreign language was not to try and map out every conversation beforehand, but it was the ability to navigate through the uncertainty of any given moment. I don’t think life is much different. Things will happen that nobody could have expected, but that doesn’t mean we have to be discouraged. Had I maintained the tunnel vision I had, and refused to embrace the unpredictable, my intercultural experience could’ve ended right then and there. But I made an attempt to navigate, rather than avoid, the uncertainty, and as a result I have a new perspective, a new friend, and a newfound drive to do the most with the hand I’ve been dealt.
 

Derick Towar

Derick Towar, a fourth-year human physiology and Spanish major from Granada Hills, California, studied this spring in Spain on the CIEE Liberal Arts Seville program. 

Student blog entries posted to this International Accents page may not reflect the opinions and recommendations of UI Study Abroad and International Programs.  The blog is intended to give students a forum for free expression of thoughts and experiences abroad in a respectful space.

 

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