As a first-year School of Undergraduate Studies (UGS) student, Armando Vera was the inaugural recipient of the UGS Summer Exploration Experience Grant. Vera used his grant to partially fund his travel and program fees for an International Volunteer Headquarters teaching English program in Cuzco, Peru. He spent a month teaching English to elementary school children at the Tancarpata Primary, what he described as “a troubled school nestled within one of Cuzco’s most dangerous poverty-ridden slums.” Not only was his experience rewarding and life-changing, but he was able to travel the country visiting Machu Picchu; Puerto Maldonado, the gateway to the Amazon jungle; and Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake on Earth.
What follows is an essay in Vera’s own words. Read the extended version of Vera’s interview.
The harsh reality experienced by Peruvian children is unlike anything American children face. I chose to teach elementary-age children primarily because they are the one group of people who have the greatest opportunity to impact their nation. In Cuzco, Peru, many children only finish their elementary education in hopes of making it big in town, which, according to them, is becoming a tour guide. Faced with that ideal, my goal in going down to Peru was to not only teach English, but above all, to foment in them the desire to expand their horizons and pursue a professional career. Unfortunately, for most children, those types of aspirations are far-fetched since the pervasive Peruvian poverty is a major hindrance on their dreams, their life, their future.
At Tancarpata Primary some of the challenges I encountered dealt directly with the quality of education the students received. The staff consisted of a principal and about three teachers. Keep in mind, the principal herself was also a teacher. Those four staff members taught grades Pre-K through sixth — understand the pool of students at Tancarpata was easily about 160 or so. This means that the teacher-to-student ratio is about 1:40. In an elementary school, by no means is that an efficient or satisfactory proportion. This really affects the overall quality of education.
Consider this, throughout a normal day a teacher would only teach in a class for about two hours or less and then leave to teach another class whilst the students remained unsupervised doing assignments — well, at least the teachers believed the students did the work. On a “hard” day, it would be a surprise if two teachers showed up.
Notwithstanding the many impediments, I was able to gain a lot of experience from teaching two classes. The experience I gained was unlike any other. Those children I encountered really taught me how to become a much more patient, understanding and relaxed individual. Coming from the U.S., where I’m both a full-time student and a part-time worker, I’m well accustomed to a very busy, on-the-run lifestyle; in Peru, however, life is, well, much slower. The sudden change in environment really pushed me to view, or moreover appreciate, life in a different manner. It helped me understand the importance behind breathing and listening to the student. What’s more, I was able to experience the importance of connecting with people from a very different culture. Those children really accepted me as one of their own. Every day the children would run to me and hug me; they would beg my full embrace, ultimately in search of that warmth and care, that affection that every child yearns for.
Had I dealt mostly with adults, I realize my experience would have been much more different. Yes, working with children is an art (and for that I want to thank every teacher out there that devotes their life’s work to teaching the children of our world), but loving children is a very different thing. After a month of being with those beautiful students of mine, I became aware of how much I loved each and every one of them. I finally understood how powerful my presence there had been: they could sing their ABC’s, count from one to fifty, and even say “Go Longhorns!”
My last day at the Tancarpata Primary was a rather difficult one; those children didn’t want to see me leave. I wrote each one of them a personalized letter reassuring them of their immense potential and the possibility of a bright future. To top it off, I even made them all goodie bags loaded with the heaps of American candy that filled up one of my suitcases. The last goodbye was a sad one. Walking down that hill for one last time was sad, hearing those children’s goodbyes magnified the emotion. And as tears rolled down, I looked back one last time and then heard the roar of one of the airplanes taking off. That moment was very special to me since it reminded me of one of my favorite students who once told me that every time she sees an airplane taking off on the runway below, she wishes she were there, going somewhere special, some place where she can live a good life. That moment really touched my heart. It changed my life.
Photos by Armando Vera