You Should Volunteer Abroad

Maple Buescher headshot
Maple Buescher
April 17, 2024

Last Monday, as the puffy clouds sparkled and the sun warmed the terrace, I learned the Spanish word for “relay race” (relevos). It was field day, and the school patio was swarming with elementary schoolers under the gaze of their teachers, plus me and a few other volunteers. I listened, shepherding six-year-olds into lines and reminding them to pay attention, as the teacher laid out the structure of the relay race, and then I inevitably explained the rules again as they sprinted back and forth across the pavement.

When the children complained to their teacher that this was too easy, I learned the word for “one-footed”.

This semester, I have had the privilege and joy of volunteering in a local public elementary school. I work with a foundation that runs evening programs for the school’s children between 4pm and 7pm each day, as a teacher’s assistant with six- and seven-year-old students. Officially, we support at-risk children by blending academic and social-emotional education. What this means in practice is that we do a bit of homework and then play a lot of games.

And let me tell you, it’s a blast.

I get to teach multiplication and build with blocks. I get to serve snacks and play hide-and-seek on the playground with a bunch of six-year-olds. I get to teach games like Red Light, Green Light and I Spy to reinforce the students’ English lessons. It is challenging and overstimulating at times, but mostly, it is so much fun.

But there’s something more to my love of my time in the elementary schools that I’ve been trying to put my finger on. I think it’s that I rarely get to have authority in Spanish. I have the Spanish of (if I’m being generous) an eight-year-old, and while my listening skills are decent enough to succeed in classes taught in Spanish, my accent and my stumbles with vocabulary flag me as a foreigner to everyone the minute I open my mouth. Whenever I’m interacting with Spanish people, I feel half a beat behind, running through my mental dictionary to be able to hold a conversation. I never quite feel comfortable.

But at school, I get to have authority. I am listened to unwaveringly and unquestioningly. Often, when Spanish people hear my accent, they assume I don’t know what I’m talking about; but the children I work with are so young that they see me as a teacher and assume I know everything. They ask me everything under the sun (where’s the soap, what’s the temperature, do you know what my dog’s name is) which can get exhausting, but they also listen to what I have to say. When I teach them games, they interrogate me incessantly about the rules, but they want to listen and learn. 

As a teacher figure, I get to feel stable and solid, not second-guessing every word out of my mouth the way I usually am in Spanish.

The children have given me confidence to speak—assurance that I’ll be listened to, and therefore the bravery to talk. That confidence has carried over into other areas of my life. This isn’t even mentioning all the vocabulary I’m learning that I wouldn’t encounter in any other context or how much having to constantly speak and explain things is helpful for my fluency and my accent. I sincerely think that (with the possible exception of living with a host family) there is nothing else that has been more helpful for my Spanish-language development this semester than volunteering.

Finally, I think it’s important to see the reality of your city, the parts that tourists don’t often see. As study abroad students, most of us are paying tens of thousands of dollars for a cultivated, guided trip through our host cities. We are given housing selected by the program in middle and upper-class neighborhoods and taken on guided walking tours of carefully-selected highlights. It’s easy to commute between our cultivated housing and our cultivated program centers without seeing the other corners of the city.

The children in my program are mostly immigrants. Several of them have incarcerated parents or siblings living in other countries. Some rely on school meals to eat. They are children who have none of the advantages that my host siblings do: two parents at home with stable incomes who dedicate hours to helping with homework and resolving sibling squabbles. Seeing the reality of their situation has reminded me that Madrid is a real city with real people and real problems, like every other city on Earth, and has made me more mindful of the ways that I interact with my home for the semester.

So, yes: there are existential benefits. There are benefits for your language development and for your sociopolitical perspective on your host city. But first and foremost, I do it because I like spending time with kids, and I get to laugh and play and chat with six-year-olds, and I find the relationships that I’ve cultivated fulfilling and fun.

If you’re not interested in working with children, I’m sure you can find other volunteer opportunities in your city. Pro tip: ask whether any organization that offers internship opportunities to exchange students also takes volunteers. (Some students work more hours a week and get academic credit for doing the same thing with the same program where I volunteer, but setting up a formal partnership with your host school’s registrar is not necessary). It’s good for your language development, and it’s good for your perspective as a resident of your city, but mostly, it’s just so much fun.

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Maple Buescher headshot

Maple Buescher

Hi!! My name is Maple and I'm a junior at Bates College, where I am a member of the sailing team, the orchestra, and everything in between. I am the Editor in Chief of our student newspaper and am interested in pursuing a journalism career.

2024 Spring
Home University:
Bates College
Political Science
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