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Finding Community, Kindness, and Courage through Cultural Exchange

By Juan Carlos Rivera, former ambassador teacher with Participate Learning from Panama

Ten years have elapsed, but my Participate Learning memories remain so vivid that sometimes I have recurring dreams about my days at Smithfield Middle School (SMS). It is a strange feeling that I left something there, brought something with me, or both. I am a different person from that young English teacher who left Panama back in 2004 in search for better opportunities in the U.S.

My teaching experience changed my life forever.

Not having ever been out of my country and suddenly being a foreigner in another country is not an easy thing to do. First of all, you do not know either what to do nor what to expect. I wish I had paid more attention to the Participate Learning orientation sessions, but I was so busy processing so many things at the same time to prepare for my journey.

Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Rivera.

September 20 was the date, and my whole family accompanied me to the airport. It wasn’t easy to say goodbye in the middle of so many tears, but I knew I had to do this – at least, that is what I thought until the plane took off and my legs started shaking, not for the fear of flying, but for the step I was taking.

It was when I landed in Atlanta (my connecting flight) that I realized the English I’d learned in school was a tool I could use to find my way in my new environment. I texted my brother via Messenger (old-school technology) and asked him to tell my mom hello and that I loved her, and I was off to Smithfield, Virginia – seeing so many pine trees on my way blew my mind!

Upon arrival, I met my local adviser, a then-current ambassador teacher with Participate Learning who was there to help me out. I can’t say enough to thank my local adviser, Noel, for everything he and his family did for me, especially teaching me by example what a strong sense of community is all about, cooking delicious food, and singing karaoke (among other things).

I can’t say enough to thank my local adviser, Noel, for everything he and his family did for me, especially teaching me by example what a strong sense of community is all about.

It was then time to start the real work: teaching. My days at Smithfield Middle School were a bit rough at first since I didn’t know how to deal with so many things. Teaching Spanish, my mother tongue, was a big challenge – you do not usually reflect upon your own language, so I had to become a late night and early morning Spanish student in order to teach my students the next day. I started to feel smarter when I realized how complex Spanish syntax is; other times, I was just too exhausted. Fortunately, I met some great and helpful people over there who helped me on my journey, all of whom made a huge difference in my life. The teachers I met were examples of the kindness of people in the United States.

One of the most valuable things I learned from them is that making mistakes and asking for help is OK.

Former ambassador teachers were also extremely kind and helpful. In fact, one of them sold me her car without any down payment or a payment commitment. Can you believe that? Of course, I paid her every penny back, but it was a huge help in my time starting out. After my first year, things became a lot smoother. I had a lot more time to just act like a human being!

There were still so many questions revolving in my head, though, like, Why were people leaving pieces of furniture exposed to the elements? My local adviser told me they were giving them away, and that people did that all of the time. It was then that I became a kind of hoarder to the point I had to call some friends from Mexico to help me empty my apartment when it was time to come back to my country. Oops!

Juan Carlos with Cristobal and Hannelore, two former ambassador teachers. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Rivera.

Anyway, that second year, I was transferred to a new school. I met our principal, Garrett Smith, who I still call ‘boss’ to this day. He is one of those few people who can lead others through inspiration and by example. As a matter of fact, he was my pick when I had to present on my admired leader during my Fulbright Hubert H. Humphrey year at Boston University in 2015. I will never forget his words: “Something magic happens to teachers in their third year of experience. Something sparks in their practice.” I couldn’t agree more.

The list is long. So many memories still resonate in my head and many dreams still accompany my sleep after ten years of my return home. My experience teaching with Participate Learning had its ups and downs, but it was undoubtedly worthy. I met great people, taught great students, gained lots of experience, and made many good friends I still keep in touch with – and that is priceless.

Want to teach in the US with Participate Learning? Start your application today!