The Day of the Dead During the COVID-19 Pandemic

stephanie vargas profileLast year, I wrote about the famous Día de Muertos celebration. This year was different. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we all had to change the way we live. This includes our holidays and celebrations throughout the year, and Día de Muertos is no exception. Due to social distancing guidelines and quarantine practices, the Day of the Dead had to be celebrated more privately. This reminded me of the old-fashioned tradition, where we waited for loved ones’ souls to come home and “be” with us for a day. I am pleased to explain a little bit about how all this started.

The Best of Both Worlds

Mexico, like most Latin-American countries, is a mixture of two different cultures: Native American and Spanish. Within Mexico, native cultures, such as the Aztecs and Mayans, remembered those who had passed between October 25th and November 3rd by dancing, singing, playing some music, and offering them flowers. When the Spaniards arrived in what now is Mexico, they found the tradition very interesting. These native Mexican cultures had a polytheist religion in which they sacrificed human lives as tributes to their Gods. The Spaniards, who were predominantly Catholic, believed those religions were barbaric and decided to evangelize the native cultures. As a result, they built a church where Aztecs would pray to their Gods. The Aztecs eventually began praying to the Spaniards’ religious figures. 

November 1st and 2nd are Catholic dates to remember those who have passed. The Day of the Dead was born as a result of the Spanish and Aztec celebration of those who had died combining together. This combination became just another way to embrace our culture: a mixture of Spanish and Native Mexican. 

The “Old-Fashioned” Way to Celebrate

When I was a little girl, my family and friends would set up a table as an altar to remember those who had passed. On this table, we placed delicious dishes, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, fresh bread, ripened fruit, sugar skulls, and a picture of the person who had already left this world. Sometimes we even placed cigarettes on the altar! Some candles and papel picado (confetti) would join the party, along with cempasúchil (Mexican marigold) petals. Cempasúchil petals lined the path from the door to the ofrenda, so the souls knew what path to follow. 

In other parts of the country, family members and friends visit their loved ones at the cemetery. They bring their altar offerings to their loved ones’ new home so they do not have to make the long journey from their afterlife to their previous one.

The living, on the other hand, eat pan de muerto (sugar buns) and drink hot chocolate. They give candy to kids who knock on the door. Trick or treating in Mexico does not happen on October 31st. Children are out in full force on November 1st and 2nd so it matches our celebrations and traditions. To me, Halloween is American. The Day of the Dead is Mexican. 

The Day of the Dead During COVID-19

It comes as no surprise to say that mass events were canceled this year in Mexico City. We did not have a parade, public ofrendas, Catrina costumes’ competition, or trick or treating. We were not even allowed to visit the cemetery because visitors could spread the virus there. What did we do, then? Families gathered in their houses and set up their altars together. We set the altar table for the ofrenda, made some hot chocolate, and ate pan de muerto. We played card games, talked about our memories, and remembered the people who have left this world. This process is part of life. Each of us will go through it just as our ancestors have. And, hopefully, our souls will go back to the place where we felt happy.

by Stephanie Vargas

How to Teach in Mexico Amid COVID-19


stephanie vargas profileIn our previous interview, Stephanie Vargas spoke about her school and what it was like to be a teacher in Mexico City. During our last conversation, things were a bit different for her and the rest of the world. She discusses the sudden change in plan for her school with COVID-19 and what that looked like for teachers in Mexico. Whether or not you teach in Mexico or anywhere else in the world, this story is relatable. Stephanie and I quickly realized that the government could not prepare for what was to come with COVID-19. She talks more about the details of this rather strange year. For those readers who teach in Mexico, she talks about the challenges and gives advice.  

What has been the most important thing you learned while teaching so far?

“I have learned that working with people, especially teenagers, is difficult and rewarding at the same time. During these years I have felt disappointed and happy to be a teacher. However, seeing students do better is something I would not change.”

How have you done with accomplishing your goals this year? 

“My goals for this school year changed radically this time because I did not expect this quarantine to happen. Right now, I just want to make the content as understandable as possible. Though this generation is known to be good at technology, I’ve discovered that is not completely and inherently true. It has been a challenge to make sure they have every topic explained as clearly as possible.”

What has been the biggest challenge this year at your school?

“Definitely, the biggest challenge has been the transition from going to school in person to switching to virtual classes. Fortunately, I knew how to use scholar technology to some extent before quarantine happened. For me, changing the way I teach while also getting used to the school’s platforms has been my biggest challenge.”

Student learning from home

What advice would you give on how to deal with this challenge? 

“I would like to have taken a course about ways to better prepare for online classes and teaching. Unfortunately, with the rapid spread of the virus, my school did not have time to prepare for that. I wound up looking online and watching some videos after doing some research. Just those videos alone have helped in shaping my virtual classes. I would say use the tools you have to find information and use it in your favor.”

Do you have advice for other teachers who want to teach for the first time? 

“If you want to try teaching, it is important to remember that theory and practice are completely different. This is especially so when it comes to interacting with other human beings and trying to pass some knowledge onto them. At the end of the day, it is a rewarding job. It can be fulfilling and frustrating at the same time. Do it yourself: you will know right away if this is for you. Do not give up when things do not come out the way you wanted. This happens more often than you could imagine. Part of the job is creatively finding solutions when things don’t go according to plan.”

How has teaching two different nationalities (Mexican and Chinese) helped you improve your teaching instruction?

“As the Chinese students are fully immersed in the Mexican culture, I do not find any difference in giving instructions. I have also instructed in languages students from both nationalities do not know (for example, instructions in English and Spanish). I use the same strategies, mimics, songs, translation, gestures, and help from other students.”

What was your most memorable moment at your school and in class this year (before COVID-19 and post COVID-19)? 

“I believe in getting along with my students: the ones that are my students now and the ones that were in previous years. When they talk to me and share a forgotten moment, I feel very happy. I had not realized how much I could impact their lives until last December when some wished me happy holidays and stopped by to talk to me.”

How have you been managing your time and teaching during the Coronavirus?

“At first I felt overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start. I thought we would have the chance to go back to school and I’d be able to talk to them and address some doubts. I wanted to save the topics I considered the most difficult for the moment we would meet again in person. Also, I did not know how to manage my time. I started working all day and some nights. I have learned that that process does not work for me. Now, I work at the hours I am supposed to be in front of the group, and a couple of hours at night to prepare for the following days.”

more time

What has your school done to prepare for COVID-19?

“We did not really prepare for this pandemic. We use a platform to upload grades. Luckily, there was an option to take classes online, so we signed up for the platform’s online classroom host before the pandemic had ever reached Mexico. Initially, we never thought we were going to ever use the online teaching option. There was never a chance to learn how to use it for exclusively online classes. When online classes started, we had to learn to use the platform along the way.

We already had a website that kept track of grades, so we continued using that platform to give students content for the rest of the year. We also emailed students and parents, as well as had zoom meetings with other teachers.”

What do you think next year will look like? 

“What we know so far is that classes will not go back to normal until everything looks a little better. I can only imagine that we will have to wear face masks when we finally are able to go to school while also practicing social distancing.”

Will you be teaching Chinese students after school again? 

“I am not sure if I’ll be teaching Chinese students again. Most of my students will be going to high school next year. If I do have any Chinese students, they will be new students from lower grades. I will have to wait until next year to know for sure.”

How to Teach in Mexico Amid COVID-19

Stephanie taught the remaining semester of her classes online through her school’s portal. She is waiting to hear back from the government about whether she will be able to go back to class in August or begin teaching new classes online during fall. She will be submitting a follow-up piece with her thoughts about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the education system once she hears more about her upcoming schedule. Please be on the lookout for that upcoming article.


by Leesa Truesdell

Introducing 2020’s Mid-Year Most Popular Travel Articles

We are halfway through 2020! A couple of years ago, we started publishing a mid-year review to see which articles were read the most. This has been an interesting year so far and thanks to you, our Dreams Abroad community, we are proud to release our mid-year review. Here are your favorite articles of the first half of 2020 to remind you which topics were at the top six months ago. 

So far, 2020 has been a year filled with backpacking, travel tales, teaching in Cambodia, and the impact of COVID-19 on our team in different countries. We are pleased to share our most popular travel articles with you.

How I Traveled to Cambodia and Stayed to Teach

In this illuminating interview, Ed Gagnon caught up with Michael Carter, a fellow Canadian he met while Michael was working in the restaurant industry. Ed explains Michael’s affliction for wanderlust coupled with his move to southeast Asia in 2000. Michael has been living, teaching, and traveling abroad for 20 years. 

Traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodi Travel Articles

If you would like to know more about how to stay and teach in Cambodia, this is undoubtedly a great travel article to read. Since this interview, Michael Carter has joined our team. Be sure to check out Michael’s second interview as well as his own articles. 

Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia

Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia

Emma Higgins taught in Phuket, Thailand for a year before deciding to backpack around southeast Asia for three months before heading home to the United States. In this article, she gives 10 reasons why you should backpack around southeast Asia. Emma discusses some of the cultural complexities that transform you into an especially strong traveler. In addition, she points out how you’ll learn new languages, the many different foods you’ll encounter, and how to get out of your comfort zone and discover a new one. 

The Multifaceted Effects of Coronavirus in Our Education System

children being creative

Bebe Bakhtiar is a teacher who has been working during the COVID-19 pandemic. She takes a moment to shed some light and share her concerns about the impact of the virus in addition to what its impact will have on our international education system. This article covers the positive and negative effects of the Coronavirus on students and teachers. In this powerful piece, Bebe urges all community leaders to fight harder for our education system and its teachers. 

Arriving in Mexico City

Arriving in Mexico City

Tyler Black read about Leesa Truesdell’s trip to Mexico City and decided he wanted to also visit, too. Upon arrival, he talks about the view from the plane and how large the city is. He arrives in Mexico City and discusses the first day of his itinerary. Tyler certainly enjoys tasting the local food, touring the downtown city center, and seeing the nightlife. He provides recommendations for a taco and churrería in the city — be sure not to miss this article. Anthony Bourdain ate at the same street taco vendor! 

My Tour of Paris by Night

Moulin Rouge in paris

Leesa Truesdell shares her tour of Paris by night. She talks about the rippling effects of her canceled flight through a series of articles. In this last piece of the series, she spends a very special birthday touring Paris, living a dream she had had for years. This article talks about the different places she explored with her tour guide and the different ways to approach Paris at night (if you are a beginner). If you enjoy reading about Leesa’s solo travel adventures, then this one is a must-read. It has been one of her most popular travel articles. 

Mid-Year 2020 Best Travel Articles

Be on the lookout for our annual review coming in December 2020. You (our readers) decide who makes the top five by reading our content. Each time you read or click on a post, we appreciate it. Thank you so much for reading and being part of our community. If there are other things you would like to know from any of our writers, please send us an e-mail or leave a comment. We will share your feedback with them.

by Leesa Truesdell

Hiking the Iztaccihuatl Volcano in Mexico

Since arriving in Mexico City, I’d practically hit the ground running. I got a little personalized tour of the historic district, rode the hop-on/hop-off bus around the whole city, and took a day tour to Teotihuacan. To say I was having the time of my life would be a complete understatement. Check out parts one, two, and three to read more about those experiences.

Amigo Tours

Day Four – Hiking the Iztaccihuatl Volcano

Iztaccihuatl Volcano

I woke up on my fourth day in Mexico City not realizing it was going to be one of the most exhausting, yet exhilarating days of my life. Just like the day before, I had to be at Hostal Amigo bright and early to catch my tour to the Iztaccihuatl Volcano with Amigo Tours once again. Like I mentioned in my previous article, I highly recommend Amigo Tours for any excursions based out of Mexico City. They are prompt, organized, and run things safely and smoothly.

This time, only Tito was our guide. His eccentric attitude kept everyone in the group eager and motivated to begin the trek. Unlike the previous tour to Teotihuacan where everyone was packed like sardines on a tour bus, this time only a handful of us were loaded into a rather large van. It was certainly a more comfortable experience. As we set off, Tito went over some of the ground rules and what to expect during the hike.

Since I had previously hiked for four days to Machu Picchu a little more than a year prior, I only half-listened to Tito’s speech. I mean, I was practically a pro at hiking, right? The answer is no. I was a damned fool. In less than a few hours, Iztaccihuatl would make me its b****. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t try this excursion if you’re not in the best of shape. Just know that it isn’t for the faint of heart. I would definitely train for it a little bit for it a few months beforehand. 

Approaching Iztaccihuatl Volcano

As we approached Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park, we had a clear view of Iztaccihuatl. Although the Iztaccihuatl volcano is dormant, I was still expecting to see that classic cone shape that every volcano has. Iztaccihuatl is more of a very rocky mountain. However, Tito explained to us that the volcanic mountain is Nahautl (the Aztecan language) for “White Woman” because it resembles a woman sleeping on her side. Once I noticed that, it totally blew my mind and took away any sliver of disappointment I had. Don’t worry, I’d actually get to see an active, cone-shaped volcano very shortly.


We pulled into the visitor’s center for a bathroom break and to get a rundown of the park and the trail we’d be taking. As I hopped out of the van, I kept staring at Iztaccihuatl, fascinated by the silhouette of the sleeping woman and also eager to begin our hike. But when I turned around, my jaw hit the floor. Towering over us was Popocatepetl, an active volcano and the second highest peak in Mexico. It had that classic cone shape and even a slight haze of smoke billowing from the top. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of it. Funny enough, the volcano erupted less than two months after this hike.

Searching for Views of Popocatepetl

I was now more excited than ever to begin the hike because I knew that the higher we got on Iztaccihuatl, the better the views would be of Popocatepetl. And so, after a short drive from the visitor’s center, we arrived at the base of Iztaccihuatl. The bright blue sky made the snow-capped volcano mountain pop. Where my hike to Machu Picchu was more slow-paced and rhythmic, Tito started flying up the mountain like a bat out of hell. 15 minutes into the climb, I was gasping for air and my legs were burning. Not once did I want to give up, though. I pressed on with the group.

As the hike continued, the views became increasingly picturesque. Tito luckily gave us some time to rest a little and take some photos of Popocatepetl in the distance. He also explained to us that the saddle between Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl was known as the Paso de Cortes. It’s where the Conquistador Hernan Cortes and his army passed through on their way to the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).

Volcano in Mexico

As we trudged on, the trail began getting steeper and rockier, and I started falling behind in the pack. Man, this hike was a lot tougher than I had imagined. I had to stop a few times to collect myself before carrying on. After about an hour of this we started nearing our endpoint. Thank God, too, because I was afraid that if we went on any longer, my legs would give out. And before anyone makes fun of me, I was not the last person to reach the top! Nonetheless, I did have to sit on a rock for a while to catch my breath before enjoying the majestic view of the valley and Popocatepetl.

Back Down the Volcano

Hiking the Iztaccihuatl Volcano in Mexico

We stayed up there for about thirty or forty minutes chatting and getting to know one another. We had a very diverse group of people from all over the world. I wished we could have hung out at the top longer, but Tito was pushing for us to head back down Iztaccihuatl so we could enjoy a nice surprise lunch he had planned for us. Luckily, going down was a whole lot easier. Despite that, though, I slipped on a rock and jammed my big toe. It still hurts to this day but it makes for a good story, no?

mexican food tour

After taking one last gaze at Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, we piled back into our van and exited the national park. We stopped at a small hut just outside the park where a family was waiting for us. They were preparing all kinds of traditional Mexican food: tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc. I tried as much of it as I could along with a variety of different types of hot sauces. It was really delicious and a great way to end the day after an exhilarating experience. 

The excursion to the volcanos was an exciting one even though I didn’t expect to struggle as much as I did. The best part of adventures is pushing your body and mind and getting out of your comfort zone. It may suck in the process, but you will leave a much better person. You’ll be filled with motivation and confidence in yourself that you can’t get by playing things safe.

Thank you for taking the time to read this part of my trip hiking the Iztaccihuatl volcano in Mexico! Stay tuned for next time where I enjoy a night out courtesy of Casa Pepe and a wonderful food tour!


What It Is Like to Be a Teacher in Mexico City


stephanie vargas profileIt was a pleasure to catch up with Stephanie Vargas, a teacher in Mexico City, for her second interview. Stephanie’s first interview touches on her school and the population of students that she teaches. To clarify, her school has some Chinese students who attend classes there. They speak Chinese and do not speak Spanish. Stephanie’s school has started an after-school pull-out program to teach Spanish to the Chinese students as their second language. This program is a class of about seven Chinese students who need to practice speaking Mexico’s language, Spanish.

After speaking with Stephanie, it was easier for me to understand how Spanish as a second language is taught to Chinese students who speak only Chinese. She teaches them three times a week and teaches English five days a week to Spanish learners. Stephanie explained that it has been more challenging to teach the Chinese population than the population that speaks the same language as she does, also known as L1. In this case, she teaches her Mexican students that speak her native language English as a second language.

What is a typical day at your school like?

“Students have their first class at 7:40AM. Then, they have a 30-minute break at 11:00AM. Classes finish at 2:50PM.

Chinese students are taught Spanish three times a week after school for one hour.

How many people do you work with? How many classes do you teach?

“I teach two classes. Both are English classes, but are at different levels: secondary school (middle school) and high school. The English team is around 10 teachers. There are so many other teachers who teach other subjects that I’ve never known how many there actually are.”

How are you forming working relationships with coworkers?

“To me, it is important to make a good impression and to help coworkers as much as possible. This creates a sense of community. Communities can help their members to have better opportunities for the future.”

What is your opinion of the use of target language? In general, should language teachers only use the language they are teaching?


“I tend to speak the target language as much as possible. It is important to have interaction with the language, and the classroom has to be the place to practice it. However, I do not believe in taking just one side of things. Languages are our tools and, to me, one of the last resources I can use. If it helps to make everything clear and understood, why not use it?”

 How is the material being taught to students? Is there a specific method being used?

“There is not a specific method to follow. Teachers are free to use whichever method they think is best. Every group is different. What works with one group might not work with others.”

How do you prepare your lessons for each class? If you don’t plan lessons, how do you prepare for class?

“I do lesson plans for the week. Classes hardly ever go as planned every week. I adapt day after day. Sometimes students need to take more time to fully understand a topic. Sometimes they get it right away and we can move on sooner than expected. Whatever the case, I have a plan to follow, so I know what to do and where to go.”

How do you make class enjoyable for students?

“I try to talk about topics they like such as video games or social media. Other times, we play games related to grammar or the vocabulary of the unit. Some classes are easier than others. I cannot help having classes dedicated to explanations or reading a topic that is considered boring by them. It is part of being a teacher. There are days where your classes feel like the best you’ve ever done; others, it just feels like you are doing everything wrong.”

Students playing a game

Do you work at a bilingual school? What does that mean to you?

“No. As far as I understand, bilingual schools have some classes in the mother tongue, and some other classes in the target language. The school I work at only offers English as a subject.”

What shared goals or standards are your classroom teachers using to measure the performance of their students?

The school has made the decision to teach and measure English differently from other subjects. Our groups are not divided by school year, but by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. The groups go from A1 to B2. This is because the intention is to have students with common knowledge on the language. Having said this, our goal is to have students improve their use of the language so they move forward on their level. Eventually, they will get to the highest level.

student in mexico city

What are your goals and dreams for your students?

When people are young, they do not usually care about their future. Learning English is important for the youth of this country. That is why my goal is to have them speak English so they can have better job opportunities in the future.

Looking back at our first Teach Abroad series interview, what has changed in your classroom since that time?

“Not much has really changed. At the beginning of the school year, there were new objectives to reach. What worked during this period of time can be kept for the future. If something did not work as planned, it will be discussed and changed before next year.”

What It Is Like to Be a Teacher in Mexico City

We will speak again with Stephanie about being a teacher in Mexico City in May 2020 to hear more about the rest of her school year. She would like to see her Chinese students become more communicative with their peers in their (L2) which is Spanish. Although her Spanish students communicate in English, she would like to see them communicate more often in their (L2) which is English. We will see how they do when we catch up with her later on this year.

My Biggest Inspiration: María Dolores González

by Carlos Balbuena

Carlos-Balbuena María Dolores GonzálezMy name is Carlos Balbuena González. I’m from México City and I want you to meet my mom: María Dolores González Aguilar. She was the most amazing person I’ve ever met and I had the privilege of having her as a mother. Being her son is the best thing that ever happened to me because of what she taught me.

Importance of Family

My mother taught me the importance of family and the value of sacrifice. She was an incredibly hard-working person. When her mother died, she cared for her father, who had Alzheimer’s. It was a challenging task and she did everything and even a little bit more for him. I admire her dearly because, at the same time she was taking care of him, she was also able to manage a business, take care of the house, and take care of me and our three dogs. She did everything to provide and educate us. She did it all for her family. 

My mother always encouraged me to be myself and this taught me to be my authentic self. Maria Dolores Gonzalez was not a regular mom. She always talked to me upfront about everything and she always inspired me to pursue my dreams. I vividly remember her saying that I should study something that made me happy rather than something profitable. She constantly encouraged me to do the things that I liked rather than the things I dreaded. She taught me I must be myself and never try to shape myself to be likable. My mom shaped my world and my vision of it. 

She Always Listened

Carlos Balbuena and mother

She taught me that you don’t need someone’s validation or a title to prove your worth. Mom was everyone’s person to go to when they felt sad or they needed advice. She always listened to you without judging, and her advice was always pure gold. My mom was really smart and she could’ve done anything she wanted. Unfortunately, my grand-dad had the notion that women should not study since they were just going to be supported by a husband. She had to quit school soon after high school. Nonetheless, she excelled in all the jobs she had and became a fundamental part of them. When she died, the company where we worked together went down and it’s now sinking. She was the only one who was able to properly manage the business.


Besides being incredibly smart, she was also an incredibly giving person. My mom always worried about everyone else instead of herself. As we say here in México, she was the kind of person who would take the bread out of her mouth to give it to you. She died on February 19th of 2019. With her passing my world turned upside down. 

I’m very sad about her passing, but I’m really happy that I was able to meet her. There’s no day I don’t think about her. I carry a few her ashes near my chest in a necklace. Whenever the day gets too rough or I’m feeling down, I grab my necklace and think about what would she say or the advice she would give to me to make me feel better, and then, the pain fades away. 


María Dolores González Is My Inspiration

María Dolores González is not here anymore, but she’s still my biggest inspiration to move forward. I want to make her proud going forward and I know for sure she felt proud of me before she passed. She said it sometimes, but I want to succeed in life so I can be exactly what she wanted me to be: a good, decent, loving person, who is independent and self-sufficient. She shapes and will shape my world.

My mother knew I loved her with all my heart because we used to tell each other “I love you” often. So please, you can never be short on the “I love you’s.” If you love someone, let them know how much they mean to you. If you live with your mom, go to her room and give her a big hug for me. If you live by yourself, call your mom. It’s a good time to say to her that you love her and that you’re grateful for everything she’s done for you.

María Dolores González 2


Stephanie Vargas Talks Teaching EFL in Mexico City


stephanie vargas profileAs a Spanish and English as a Second Language teacher in the United States, two questions frequently pop into my mind: 1) How do the school systems in the US compare to my (mostly) Central American ESL students’? and 2) How do teacher challenges with students vary between cultures?

As I’ve been pondering these questions, Leesa Truesdell (our director) introduced me to Stephanie Vargas, a Spanish as a Second Language and English as a Foreign Language teacher in Mexico City. Our careers are parallel to each other, just in bordering countries. To add even more to our similarities, we both lived in Tallahassee, Florida for a period of time while simultaneously attending two different universities! Isn’t it a small world after all?

I was curious to hear more about Stephanie and to see if her perspective could answer any of my questions. After all, good teachers are constantly changing their perspectives. Check out our questions and her answers below.

What do you like most about teaching EFL in Mexico City?

“To me, overall, the most rewarding thing is to see my students progress. Without a doubt, I love seeing how they want to use what is taught in their daily lives.”

Who are the students that you teach?

“The students I teach can be divided into two groups.

  1.  Teenagers: their ages range from 12 to 18 and they study either at the secondary or high school.
  2. The Chinese community: these are teenagers that have lived from three to 10 years in Mexico and have had problems understanding the language, let alone their subjects at school. I teach them because they need to have better communication with their teachers.”

What do you like most about teaching these students (Spanish language vs English language students)?

“What I like the most is the opportunity to share cultures, whether Chinese, American, or Mexican, with others and to find differences and similarities among them. At the end of the day, we all are humans and it is interesting to have different points of view about life.”

students learning with flash cards

What did you find to be the most challenging part of teaching both groups of students?

“While language can be a bridge that connects cultures, it can also be a barrier. Students are used to having explanations in their mother tongue. This can be useful at times and obstacles during others. Because of their ages, it is complicated to show them that there are lots of different ways to perceive life as they know it. Most of them do not have the opportunity to travel abroad – Chinese students usually travel back and forth from China – and they do not have the chance to speak with people from other countries. This means that they will not have a real need to learn the target language.

For the Chinese community, it is sometimes difficult to interact with their Spanish-speaking classmates. This leads them to only interact with their fellow Chinese classmates. Therefore, they have not learned to communicate with others in Spanish. They believe they do not need to learn.”

What do both sets of students have in common? What is the difference?

“They are both groups of teenagers. They like to listen to similar music and play sports and video games. Usually, their only interests are finding a significant other, their personality, and other people that care about the same things. Teenagers have similar interests regardless of where they come from.

students giving a presentation ESL in Mexico City

One of the most interesting things they have told me that they’ve noticed of each other’s cultures is that Chinese students think Mexican students could be more hardworking. They say that compared to China, school is not as strict.”

Where are you currently working?

“I’m working at Colegio de San Ignacio de Loyola Vizcaínas. Spanish immigrants founded this private school 250 years ago. It is located in downtown Mexico City and the students that go there are usually the children of merchants. I work at a secondary school and high school, but the school provides education from daycare to high school. This means the students’ ages range from two to 18 years old.”

What are the challenges that your students encounter?

“Motivation is a challenge that I, without a doubt, encounter. It is hard to motivate teenage students.”

What advice would you give to someone who works with people from other cultural backgrounds?

“Do some research. Most people like to share their cultures. If they see you try to understand and know something about them, they will complement that some more. Moreover, listening is a great way to show you are interested in what they have to say which will make them find a way to communicate with you.”

What is one example of something you have done differently or some way you have changed as a result of your experiences?

“I used to only teach language: grammar, punctuation, tenses, etc. That has little to no impact on most students. What I have changed with time is the inclusion of cultures. In particular, I try to encourage them to speak to foreign people.”

Explain the motivations of each group of students for learning a second language.

“To me, it is hard to say if all students are motivated the first time they study a foreign language, especially if it’s required. It is because English is just another subject like Math and Geography. There are some students that do not have true motivation other than getting their final grade. However, those who have motivation try to speak English outside the classroom. They mainly speak the language with Americans that play online video games with them.”

What made you want to be a foreign and second language teacher?

“10 years ago, I considered myself to be good at learning English. The school I was attending gives language courses on Saturdays and most of my teachers were young. I thought that I could do that for a living. The real motivation started when I got my first job. There, I could see how I could help people to learn something that would affect their lives positively. In Mexico, speaking English gives you great job opportunities. I believe that I can contribute to my country and my students if they have better opportunities for a good life than previous generations.”

Students learning english

What languages are commonly studied in Mexico City?

“Mostly English in basic education. In some universities, it is mandatory to speak and read English at an intermediate level. Once you prove you are fluent in English, people usually learn French.”

What are your future goals?

“As far as my professional goals go, I want to work where people are intrinsically motivated to learn what I have to teach. Little by little, I’d like to leave behind those students who take English just because they have to. I know there are people who want to learn because it is important for them and teaching motivated students is much more rewarding.

My personal goals are to travel to other countries, and hopefully study abroad for a master’s degree. I would like to develop some material to study Spanish as a second language for kids and teenagers. I have noticed that it is hard to find books to learn Spanish as a kid, especially Latin American Spanish.”

What is professional development like in Mexico for teachers in your field? (How do you grow as a teacher? What resources do you have?)

“If you have a bachelor’s degree, you can work at universities, schools, and pretty much everywhere you want. It is very common to find language teachers that only speak the language. However, it is hard to find jobs that provide you professional growth.

I am part of the first group, and I first started working at a small language school. As I finished my studies and gained more experience, I was fortunately able to work at schools and universities.”

If someone wanted to teach foreign languages in Mexico City, where could they find a job?

“I believe it is easy to get a job teaching languages. If you wanted to try, you could find a job at any language school. Although easy to attain, the jobs do not pay well. Finding a job at a university, a school, or at a language center that belongs to a university will require you to have a bachelor’s degree.”

Wrap Up

While I’ve got more to learn about the US versus Central American educational systems, I clearly see the answer to my first question: some challenges I have in the classroom will be common for every language teacher regardless of country or language taught. Clearly, some of these will depend on the situation, but every teacher fights motivation battles with their students. We all desire to make our subject relevant and solve pedagogy issues related to age. I comfort myself on my hard teaching ways with this knowledge in mind.

An American Experience While Studying Abroad

Carlos Balbuena is 29 years old and was born in Mexico City. I had the pleasure of teaching him English while he was studying at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida. Carlos was a quiet student who was eager and curious. I remember when I took a group of students to Barnes and Noble. Carlos was the student who had picked out at least six books that he wanted to buy. The first week he arrived, he spent half of his spending money on books for leisure time. He has a very well-read mind and is very inquisitive — this is what makes his writing so unique.

student group

What sparked your dream to study abroad?

“Definitely pop culture and literature. I grew up watching movies and seeing all those places, landmarks, and people traveling. I read my father’s city travel guides all the time. By the time I was an adolescent, studying abroad was something I was really looking forward to. Then I began to read literature – specifically Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. That was pretty much the final bump that led me to actually pursue studying abroad and do it.”

student abroad

What were your expectations before you left? How have they changed?

“I wasn’t sure what to expect. Everything I thought came from pop culture, books, and my imagination. I wanted to have a great experience, so in order to do that, I knew I had to leave any expectations behind and just enjoy things as they would occur. I needed to be receptive and open to everything in order to get a real grasp of what life is like in the US.

As I grew older, my perceptions of the US changed. I was a little scared of being targeted in some way. In general, us Mexicans hold a (wrong) opinion about the average American, so we are constantly defending ourselves. I think this works both ways, as Americans generally have a wrong opinion about us as well. Yes, radical people exist, but they exist despite their nationality or political affiliation. It’s human nature at its worst and it could happen anywhere or anytime.

The important thing is that there are always more good people than bad ones. In the end, I’m really happy I went because every single person I met in the US was amazing to me. Oftentimes, I hear loose comments on what Americans are like. I hope I left a good impression on the people I met in America so they feel the same way I do when they hear a loose comment about Mexicans.”

What did you not expect?

“I didn’t expect to talk to so many people. I was able to look back and be very glad that I went, and I actually miss it all the time. Talking to lots of people, especially as an introvert, was a huge success for me. It was also a warm and welcome surprise to be complimented on my English. It made me realize that I was going in the right direction.

interview abroad

I wasn’t expecting to end in bad terms with my fellow Mexican travel companions, though. I guess it’s ironic that I got along pretty well with the locals but not with most of my countrywomen.”

What’s your next step?

“It’s been a very hard year for me, guys. Everything that could have gone wrong is going wrong. So, in all honesty, I’m not sure what my next step is. This year, to me, is about getting the hang of things as they are now. Recently, I had a difficult loss in my family. Right now, it’s all about taking care of things. I want to travel again, soon, but now isn’t the right time. I would like to live someplace else but I’ve become aware that it may take a little bit longer than I thought it would originally. Ultimately, it’s still what I want to do with my life. I’ll just have to be patient.”

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to study abroad?

“Surf the Internet: search for local scholarship programs and see if you fit the requirements. If not, then work to fit them. Study and improve your notes, then apply again. If you have an interest in a specific country or a city, soak yourself in it. Watch YouTube video blogs about it, listen to local music, read books related in any possible way to it, and study the local language. Don’t let fear grip you. It will be hard, but it would be harder to look back with regret for not trying.”

florida agricultural and mechanical university

Good Memories of an American Experience While Studying Abroad

Carlos made friends while in the US, which is arguably one of the most important parts of studying abroad. He made an everlasting impression on many of the people he interacted with in Tallahassee and I am so glad I had the pleasure of teaching him. I was able to catch up with Carlos this past April in Mexico City while visiting on a vacation. I met Carlos before my grandma passed away and since then, I have moved to Madrid and have moved back. While living in Madrid, I experienced the greatest loss of my life… my grandma passed while I was abroad.

My own grief has taught me that the way to let someone know you care about them is to tell them. When we met, Carlos was experiencing grief and I could sense that it was very painful. I want our readers and Carlos to know that the memory of our loved ones who pass never fades. The pain gets better with time and life sorts itself out. Hang onto the good memories and let go of the bad ones. Carlos, life is full of opportunity and for you — it’s just begun.

The American experience studying abroad not only provides education but also introduces you to new cultures. Many students who leave to study abroad are leaving their home for the first time. Dreams Abroad has created a Facebook community for travelers, students, and educators to share their passions and stories.

by Leesa Truesdell