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“Once you’ve been thrown in the deep end, you learn how to adapt and rise to the top.”

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Name: Ruth Paterson
Age: 19
Hometown: Glasgow
Nationality: Scotland
High School: Douglas Academy
Occupation: Creative Florist
Languages spoken: English and Thai (beginner)
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Teaching English in Quito, Ecuador
Duration: 8 weeks
Start month: May 2013
Claim to fame: Taught English in Thailand for a year

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I returned from a year of volunteering in August 2011 and rather than going straight into study, I only wanted to cure my persistently “itchy feet”. Having spent a year volunteering as an English teacher in the Northeast of Thailand with UK charity organisation Project Trust, I wanted to utilize the two things I was most sure of upon my return home: 1) that I loved teaching English and 2) that I wanted to learn another language. As I’d felt I’d covered part of Asia for now, I really wanted to expand my horizons towards South America. The challenge drew me in the most. I spent months working and saving up and discovered UBELONG. I stumbled upon the English teaching project in Tumbaco, outside Quito and instantly knew it was right for me. I loved the idea of staying with a host family and that the project was just on the outskirts of the hustle and bustle of Quito, making it the perfect experience.

What were your major challenges?
Before I left for Ecuador, I’d spent months trying to learn some basic Spanish from an iPhone app. As soon as I arrived off the plane this proved to not be quite enough, as I’d imagined. I spent the first couple of days feeling slightly embarrassed for not knowing as much as I really should have sat down and learned. My host family was so unbelievably hospitable, caring and welcoming that I only wanted to learn more to get to know the family better. After all, they were letting me stay in their house for two months! I sat myself down most days with the dictionary, translator and diary and practiced as much as I could. During meals, we often had discussions of sorts, whether it was about the day or about aspects of life at home compared to Ecuador. The whole family, especially the mom, were incredibly patient with me and only boosted my confidence to speak more which was great encouragement. It also helped that some of the other volunteers staying at the same time as myself had decent grasps of the language and always corrected me where it was needed. I’ve applied to study night classes here in Glasgow so I can continue my relationship with my host family and maintain the skill I was so proud to bring home.

What was your impact on your project?
As there were quite a few of us volunteers at the project at the one time, I like to think that all of us brought something different to the table. We’d arranged different stations for the first couple of days to familiarize ourselves with the kids’ abilities. We all chipped in with different songs or games we’d learned as children ourselves, different methods we knew that worked and different quirky wee things that would allow our own personalities to shine through them.

On a whim one day when we’d run out of ideas for teaching colors, I suggested we sang the song “I Can Sing a Rainbow”, and oh, it was sung all right. Lots. It sounds trivial, but hearing the kids start singing it to themselves after a few days, completely unprompted whilst playing or walking to the bus stop while on a field trip really made me feel quite proud of myself. It wasn’t just me though, it was all of the other volunteers as well who brought their own personal flare, enthusiasm and positivity to the project, so that everyone including ourselves left school with a smile on their face.

Also, on two separate occasions I saved the day with my knowledge of how to use a specifically designed tin opener, apparently not sold on that side of the world.

Tell me about somebody you met who impressed you?
There isn’t one specific person, I do apologize. In the first few weeks, myself and another volunteer, Victoria, accompanied a teacher from the secondary school along to the weekend classes he’d been teaching at the Central University of Ecuador in Quito. The classes were full, early on a Sunday morning, of students of all ages and backgrounds who were so eager and driven to gain their degree. They studied at the university on the weekends and spent the week working and providing for their families at home. It really made me think of all the times in high school that I’d complained about having to study for something or not given my all to a subject. They all had amazing grasps of English and were so keen to practice it with us and ask us questions about our own respective cultures.

At the volunteer house, I could not choose one person who inspired me more. They were all, as a whole, the most caring and loving people. My host mom went out of her way to make sure we were fed and about our days at school. She reminded me a lot of my own mother in that one day she came in to the room and showed me how to fold my clothes properly! On reflection, I can only laugh as it is such a motherly thing to do! My host dad was one of the most kind-natured people I’ve ever met in my entire life and would come in after work to give everyone around the dinner table a neck massage and giggle in his own distinctive way. The sisters were so much fun to be around and as I’ve never had sisters of my own. Despite the fact that the family all had their own careers and studies they were each very dedicated to, they never for a moment didn’t have the time to offer us advice, help or just a wee chat over some tea after dinner!

What advice would you tell a future volunteer?
Be yourself! No one expects you to stand up in front of a class and be the best, most confident teacher in the world on the very first day. Once you’ve been thrown in the deep end, you learn how to adapt and eventually rise to the top. As painfully cheesy as that sounds! When it comes to communicating with teachers at school, in the house or people on the streets of Tumbaco or anywhere, don’t worry about your ability of Spanish. Just try. Practice everywhere, no one will make fun of you if you make silly mistakes; they will be happy that you’ve made the effort to communicate with them. Overall, just enjoy the time you spend in Ecuador. Noises, smells, foods, and any tiny little aspect you know that you’ll miss when you return home are what make your experience worthwhile.

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Related post:
Meet Ashleigh Augustine, a young professional from California who volunteered with UBELONG in Quito, Ecuador on the Teaching English project.

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