Name: Janine Puleo
Nationality: United States
University: University of Wisconsin Madison
Degree: Philosophy and Spanish
Languages spoken: English, Spanish (advanced), and Italian (beginner)
Past travel experience: Moderate
Volunteer Abroad: Teaching English in Merida, Mexico
Duration: 2 weeks
Start month: January 2015
Claim to fame: Janine has taught English as a second language to children and adults in the US, Europe and Costa Rica.
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Campus Leader?
I knew from the second I boarded the plane back home that I needed to tell other people about UBELONG so that they could experience what I just had. I can say with confidence that you will not have an experience with another organization like you will have with UBELONG. Martina and Leo were telling me about how they travelled across Mexico to small towns, staying with locals and visiting different sites to handpick our projects. That is something special. You’re supported by people who know the sites and projects as well as the site contacts. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That is, unless you travel with UBELONG more than once!!
What is your favorite memory?
One day after class ended, Maestra Ingrid (that’s what the kids called her) took the students who had finished copying down their homework to wait by the door for their parents to come pick them up. I sat with Leo, a shy boy who originally hadn’t spoken to me much but gradually had given me a hug or two, as he copied his homework. He kept looking over near the door and pointing to a wasp. He started copying down his homework again, and I noticed him shaking. “Are you cold?” I asked, even though I knew he couldn’t be since he was wearing a navy crew neck sweater. He shook his head, so I asked, “Leo, are you scared?” He nodded. I knelt in front of him and said, “Leo, it’s okay! Just keep looking at me!” He was quiet for a second, and then he said, “Will you protect me?” He was killing me with cuteness.
Leo stole my heart in one second. It was so easy to connect with the students in just a short amount of time. The day I left, I almost cried because students I didn’t even know kept coming up to me and saying, “Are you sad because you’re leaving? We’re going to miss you. Don’t forget about us”. I met so many genuine, sweet people, and it was so hard leaving. It’s only been a month, and I’m itching to go back!
What did you take from the experience?
I learned so much from this experience. It’s really incredible living in a city like you do on these trips because you really get a taste of local life- you see everyone else walking to work before 7am while you’re on your way to your project; you stop for a bite for lunch and see other people grabbing their lunch from Doña Monse as well; you enjoy the local traditions and festivities along with the people of the city, and they’re so excited to share them with you! My experience gave traction to what I thought about Mexico- I always knew it wasn’t as bad as foreigners tend to think of it. It’s a beautiful country with incredibly kind and generous people who are so willing to help no matter how much time or energy it costs them. Yes, as a country they do face issues, but so does every other country in the world.
I learned so much about myself, too. I was constantly pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and these trips show you what you’re made of in a not-so-pushy way. When my incoming flight landed, I still had no idea what to expect. I didn’t expect Saisha to come up during my first day and ask me to sit with her while she ate her breakfast. I didn’t expect to have students running up to me whenever they saw me to hug me or to say “Hi” in English. I definitely did not expect to be able to stand in front of a room of sixth year students who were eagerly waiting to hear me explain Halloween to them in Spanish. I still can’t believe that I did that, but I’m really proud that I was able to. I now have validated skills, and I know that I have made some really great friendships.
What advice would you tell a future volunteer?
To any future volunteers: I know you’re nervous, but trust me when I say you will not regret a single second of your trip. The night before I left, I was on the phone with my mom telling her I didn’t want to go because I was so nervous. Of course I wanted to go, and I knew it would be so great! The nervousness just set in when I least expected it. When I got to the airport, I saw two people from my trip who happened to be on the same first flight- we talked about how nervous and excited we all were. You’re not the only one! It’s a big thing you’re doing, and it does seem really scary! As soon as I landed, though, and Leo, one of the site liaisons, was standing at the door with a sign with my name on it, I felt a rush of relief. You will learn so much from your project, and you’ll find that it’s hard not to smile when you’re on site. Even if you do encounter a problem, you have so much support- the site contact, the liaisons, anyone from UBELONG, and, of course, your family and friends from back home.
Even if you are nervous, try to push yourself out of your comfort zone at least once every day- try a new food, make a new friend, try speaking the language a little more. The more you do, the better you feel and the more you get out of the experience. I think the best part of the trip, though, is making lifelong connections and knowing you have somewhere to go if you ever return, and, if you’re lucky, you will!