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Student uses UGS grant to teach English in Peru

The full Q-and-A with Armando Vera, the inaugural recipient of the UGS Exploration Experience Grant.

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The full Q-and-A with Armando Vera, the inaugural recipient of the Undergraduate Studies Exploration Experience Grant. He chose to use the grant to teach English in Peru last summer.

View a related photo slide show.

Tell me a little about yourself. What’s your background, major, interests?

I’m currently a second-year student here at UT. I was born in Mexico City, yet raised in McAllen, Texas.  I’m fluent in both Spanish and English, and have a passive knowledge of French and Portuguese. From a young age, I’ve worked hard to achieve the many accomplishments I now claim as my own. My upbringing wasn’t easy and for that reason acquiring success in anything possible has constantly been one of the driving forces in my life. The fervent desire to excel is a value that my parents have instilled in me from a very young age; striving for nothing more than the best is an integral part of my vision. I have many goals in life, a few of my most important include starting up my own conglomerate of holding companies in the telecomm, energy, transport and hospitality industries, assuming U.S. Ambassadorship in several countries, and also becoming the Secretary of State at some point in my life.

I’m currently pursuing international relations as my major, with the possibility of either choosing European studies or Latin American studies as my minor. Aside of that, I’m also in pursuit of a dual-degree in corporate communications and the McCombs Business Foundations certificate. I also hope to study abroad next year in Paris and Singapore.

Some of my interests include freelance photography, world politics, jazz and classical music, classic cinema, airplanes, cooking, traveling, The Economist, surfing and also drawing skyscrapers.

How did you get the UGS grant?

I remember receiving a college e-mail notification about some new special grant being proportioned by the School of Undergraduate Studies. I didn’t give it much thought since I figured that at one of the nation’s biggest universities my odds of receiving the grant were not high.

A few weeks later I was due for strategic advising. It was through my adviser, Rose Mastrangelo, that I was given more information about the grant and, above all, pushed into applying for it. And well, I did. I took on the challenge and applied. I soon realized, however, that the application was due in a week — that is, soon after Spring Break. As a result, I spent my whole Spring Break at home researching what I could possibly do with the grant, were I to receive it.

After days of Web browsing, I came to decide I wanted to volunteer abroad in a developing country: Peru. Through the International Volunteer Headquarters portal, I was referred to Maximo Nivel, the NGO in Cuzco, Peru, were I would ultimately volunteer for a month.

After churning out an exhaustive trip proposal, a funds allocation breakdown, an updated resume and also some recommendations from UT faculty, I was ready to submit my proposal. About three weeks later, I received a letter congratulating me for successfully selling the selection committee my idea — I was the “inaugural recipient of the UGS Summer Exploration Experience Grant.”

Why did you choose to use the UGS grant to travel and teach English in Peru?

I initially wanted to volunteer in India or Kenya, but the UGS grant only covered so much. I eventually settled for Peru since it’s a Spanish-speaking country (uses my native tongue), a nation with many social issues and was also well within budget. The Peruvian NGO offered volunteer placements in orphan care, jungle conservation, medical placements and also teaching English. The latter was the most suitable option for me since it allowed me to teach English to people who already speak my native tongue. This would make it easier for me to communicate, and ultimately teach them effectively. Furthermore, the work I would be doing was similar in scope to what the Peace Corps traditionally does. Many international relations majors have taken on some sort of experience abroad. From that, I was convinced that pursuing Peru was the best strategy for me at that point in time.

Were you teaching in a school? Were there other teachers from the U.S. with you?

Volunteer placements at Maximo Nivel are assigned on a rolling basis. As a result, I was placed at the Tancarpata Primary, a troubled school nestled within one of Cuzco’s most dangerous poverty-ridden slums. The school itself was across town, a daily thirty-minute morning commute, from where I was living, a ten-minute hike up a hill overlooking the airport. From there, high atop the hill, one can appreciate the expansive beauty of Cuzco.

At the Tancarpata Primary, I was accompanied by two other volunteer instructors; one of them was from Toronto and the other from Seattle. Their tenures at the primary, however, were much shorter than mine, meaning that for a time period I dealt with the students without any volunteer assistance.

Why elementary-age children? What are some of the challenges and benefits of teaching children English?

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, 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, 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.

What were some unforgettable moments from your summer trip?

I recall the overnight bus ride to Lake Titicaca, a.k.a. the Mobile Furnace from Hell. Being the backpacking type of college students, our group was on a budget, and thus we searched for the cheapest prices whenever possible, without sacrificing too much quality of course. When looking for a bus ticket to Lake Titicaca, we found a bus line charging about S/. 45 for a one way trip. Of course, we used our negotiation skills to get a lower price. It eventually got to the point where the agent offered my group the bottom section of the bus (which allegedly housed only eight “first class” seats) and offered complimentary snacks and drinks for only S/. 25 (or about $8.25 USD). Understand, the advertisements for this bus line made it seem as if we were taking Emirates Airlines to Dubai. They were coming off as a luxury bus line. And so we automatically accepted the offer.

Here is some valuable advice: your business and psychology professors were not lying to you, they’ve been right the whole time. If something looks too good to be true, it’s because it is. Don’t fall for a salesman’s persuasive rhetoric.

So that same evening we went to the bus station and boarded our bus for the overnight ride to Lake Titicaca. At this point, things were running pretty smoothly, yet what followed was wholly unexpected. It turns out that, yes, we were riding in the bottom first class floor but there weren’t only eight seats, there were actually fifteen. The seats themselves were old and nasty-looking (think of an old back seat of a mini-van inside an abandoned warehouse), there was an obnoxious baby crying, and oh, the bus driver scoffed when we asked about the complimentary drinks and snacks. Once the bus was on the road, the lights went off and here starts the worst.

Since traveling to Lake Titicaca meant ascending to an even higher elevation than Cuzco’s already-high placement (around 14,000 feet above sea level), the temperature at night was below freezing. No seriously, my scarf, which accidentally fell on the floor, had tiny icicles. The driver logically set the heater at an “appropriate” temperature so that the passengers would not suffer any cold — or freeze to death. Well, I’m not quite sure the driver really grasped the definition of “appropriate.” Twenty minutes into the ride and the heat was really hitting us all. Do you remember going into a sauna and then leaving after a while because the heat was really becoming uncomfortable? Well, think of our situation as similar, yet worse, if anything. The heat was not only uncomfortable, it was darn right unbearable. We seriously couldn’t breathe. My body was seriously beginning to go into panic mode. I was becoming dizzy and worried. I got up and went to the bathroom to take some fresh air. It helped so much. The difference was clearly obvious. It must have been about 90 degrees in that “first class furnace.” Clearly, the driver had forgotten to make sure that his passengers didn’t bake to death. Anyway, I managed to leave the door open so that the cold air could draft in and counter the killer heat.

Six hours later, we woke up in Lake Titicaca and embraced the moment of our survival. Even more shocking was the return trip. We obviously did not take that same bus line back to Cuzco; instead we settled for a different bus line. It didn’t quite seem as elegant as the bus line we had already taken, but it did seem much more promising. They didn’t advertise snacks, drinks, or first class seating, yet the ticket cost was much cheaper, only S/. 12 (or $4 USD). And for that price, of course we settled.

We got on the bus and to our surprise the interior was actually very fancy — cozy leather seats, elegant lighting, quality LCD televisions, and personal air conditioning controls (think of a flight from New York to Paris). The ride back home not only was extremely affordable and comfortable, it also allowed me to catch up on some much-needed sleep.

Besides teaching, what else did you do while in Peru? Any sight-seeing suggestions?

Peru is definitely one of the classic, must-see destinations in any world traveler’s agenda. It’s a big country featuring a huge array of sights. While in Peru, I made the best of my weekends, when I wouldn’t have placement, and would go off on mini-vacations. The first weekend I went to the main Peruvian attraction, the world-renowned sanctuary, Machu Picchu. To witness first-hand the intricacy of the engineering the Incas employed on their sacred sanctuary centuries before its abandonment was extremely rewarding. Not to mention, this city is built up on a mountain, high in the sky surrounded by clouds. It was an extraordinary experience that I will never forget. I can’t wait to return again.

The second weekend I visited Puerto Maldonado, the gateway to the Amazon jungle. My days in the lung of the world created an experience I will forever cherish. I never really was a big fan of environment conservation until I visited the Amazon. There, I felt so connected to my surroundings, the beauty of nature, the wildlife — it was magical. My time there consisted of an exciting expedition with a local Peruvian guide and an English man from Oxford. We witnessed the kind of wildlife most people only see on National Geographic: bullet ants, giant black hornets, black Caymans, tarantulas and spiders of all kinds (including the world’s second deadliest spider, the Brazilian Wandering Spideryes, the Brazilian border was only a few miles away), anacondas, monkeys of all sorts, candiru, sloths, anteaters, giant otters, toucans, macaws, piranhas, poison frogs, the highly-sought Blue Morpheus Butterfly and a raving jaguar. Not to forget some of the most important plant life — the kinds that are leading today’s research for finding tomorrow’s most important medical cures.

The third weekend I traveled to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake on Earth. There I was able to visit the floating Uros Islands, spend a night with a local family in Amananti Island, and also visit Tacquille Island (and I did all of that for about $20 USD). With its dark blue sky, clear fresh air and a continuous flood of golden sunlight, Lake Titicaca reminded me of the Mediterranean countryside.

I also visited the capital city of Lima. If you’ve been to Mexico City or Paris, then you will have an easier time acquainting yourself around Lima — the city is a megalopolis.

I went everywhere in Cuzco. Steeped in ancient history, Cuzco itself is a cultural mecca, one that attracts millions of travelers from all around the world. It’s surrounded by Inca ruins, Spanish-style cathedrals from a bygone era, fascinating museums, and features miles of eclectic cobble stone streets, which are lined by sidewalk cafes and bookshops.

Anything else you’d like to add?

It is interesting how things in life usually come together in the most bizarre ways. In Peru I networked with so many people, most of them college students like me. I developed meaningful friendships with students from Australia, California, Canada, England, France, Florida, Germany, Illinois, Ireland, India, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Zealand, Russia, Spain, Washington, and, of course, Peru. Many of these students are on their way to becoming lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and also engineers — I was surrounded by pure intelligence. This experience was, without a doubt, one that I will never forget, and most certainly one that has already propelled me in my career. People need to understand that opportunities come to those who search, those who work hard, and those who really want them. I’m very convinced of that — my time in Peru confirmed it.

Read the main essay written by Vera and view a photo slide show.