Cisco Employee Leverages Volunteer Time Off in Portugal
When Cisco increased volunteer time off for employees from one to two weeks, Carolyn Philippe jumped at the opportunity to combine her love of international travel with volunteering. In October 2021, after not having been able to travel for almost two years, Carolyn participated in her first service program with Global Volunteers. Fully vaccinated and ready to serve, Carolyn chose Portugal as her first service location with Global Volunteers. Here, she shares about this experience, which she says was so fulfilling that she is already registered for two more service programs in 2022. Read on for details.
by Carolyn Philippe
My last international volunteering trip was in February 2020, and I returned home in March just days before New York City went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After spending over one year not being able to travel, I longed to take one of my experiential trips where I could mix service with my love of international travel. Imagine my joy when in July 2021, I received an email from Global Volunteers announcing that some of their international volunteer programs were starting up again! How exciting! This was going to be my fifth international volunteering trip but the first one with Global Volunteers. Now that COVID vaccines were available, the world was opening back up and I made plans to cautiously resume the activities that I once enjoyed. In 2021, Cisco Systems, my employer, increased our Time2Give allotment from one week to two weeks and so I decided to use it all at once for the Beja, Portugal Global Volunteers program.
Volunteering in Portugal
I was part of Team 31 to Portugal, which was the first team to return to that country since the pandemic. It was a small team of five volunteers lead by Joe Testa, our Global Volunteers team leader. My Portugal volunteer experience ended up being very rewarding and the two weeks went by too quickly. I absolutely loved helping the students become more proficient with their conversational English skills and share my Haitian-American background with the students. I was initially worried about what the experience would be like having to teach wearing a mask, but it turned out not to be a problem at all. The students and I were easily able to communicate with one another and build a rapport even while masked! I have visited Lisbon, Portugal many times but this was my first time in the Alentejo region of Portugal. The Alentejo region is a historical and rural region where you’ll find cork plantations, wheat fields, and vineyards. You’ll also find the historic cities of Évora, Beja, and Serpa, which I got to visit during this trip. It was a fantastic experience to live in the small town of Beja, Portugal for two weeks. The people in the community were very welcoming and very excited to have us there.
During my trip, I taught at the IPBeja Politécnico university, a high school in Beja, a high school in Serpa, and a middle school in Beja in a computer workshop. There were also occasional private tutoring lessons at the library.
“The students and I were easily able to communicate with one another and build a rapport even while masked!”– Carolyn Philippe, conversational English volunteer in Portugal
In each school, the English conversational proficiency of the students varied. As such, it required a lot of flexibility as well as Portuguese translations from the teachers to provide value during our lessons. There was one day where the English teacher at the vocational school planned for the students to make Halloween decorations (witches’ hats) and so my lesson plan for the hour went out the window. Instead, I made arts and crafts with the students and tried to engage them in English conversation the best that I could. Another moment of spontaneity happened on the second day of teaching at the vocational school. After all the students had introduced themselves in English, one of the students said, “Since you made us introduce ourselves in English, how about you introduce yourself in Portuguese!” I’m happy that I was able to show them that I was not afraid to make mistakes when trying to communicate in a foreign language.
At the middle school, I proactively introduced myself in English and Portuguese. It was so cute that they told me that I had a “Brazilian” accent! This made perfect sense since I had taken classes at a Brazilian Portuguese school in NYC several years earlier.
The middle school students were very observant and interested in the American volunteers who came to help them write an online book using the StoryJumper computer program. The students really tried to capture my image as close to what I looked like in person. My skin color, hair style, color of my eyes, shape of my eyes, and my clothes. My eyes even got makeup!
You never know what impact your volunteering efforts will have on the young people you interact with. Over the Christmas holidays, some of the high school students from EB Abade Correia da Serra sent me beautiful handmade cards. It was such a nice surprise to see the creativity and thoughtfulness that went into the cards.
The volunteering experience was more than just teaching English conversation. It was an opportunity to expose them to American culture through my eyes and to form a personal connection with people in another country. I hope when they are all adults that they will always remember when Carolyn from New York came to teach conversational English at their school!
“You never know what impact your volunteering efforts will have on the young people you interact with. The volunteering experience was more than just teaching English conversation. It was an opportunity to expose them to American culture through my eyes and to form a personal connection with people in another country.”– Carolyn Philippe, Portugal volunteer
It was an absolute pleasure to teach adults at the IPBeja Politécnico university. I’ve taken foreign language conversation courses in the past, so it was a great opportunity to teach one myself! There were ten students in the course, and they had a good enough level of English conversational skills that they were able to read and discuss articles, practice impromptu speaking on a subject, create and deliver a short presentation on a city of their choosing, and play a quiz show type of game. I had so much fun coming up with the lesson plans each day, but I also had to be flexible to adjust things based on their interests. In January 2022, we had a Cisco Webex video call to chat about how everyone spent their Christmas and New Year’s holidays. It was nice to see everyone’s full faces as we had only seen each other in masks! I hope we all continue to stay in touch and that I will return to Beja, Portugal in the future to volunteer again.
Exploring Portugal During Free Time
Our volunteer team stayed at the beautiful Hotel Bejense in the historic center of Beja, Portugal. It’s a family-owned hotel which Global Volunteers has used for many years. The facilities were very well-maintained and the staff welcoming and helpful. I had a comfortable room with en-suite bathroom and for the two weeks I felt well cared for. The breakfast options at the buffet had enough variety so that even picky people like me could find more than enough to eat every morning.
The hotel is located on a pedestrian-only street in the historic center near lots of restaurants and shops. The front of the hotel is beautifully decorated with azalea flowers and four comfy chairs where one can sit and people watch. I would stay at this hotel again if I visited the area.
I had the opportunity to explore many of the neighborhoods in Beja either while walking to my volunteer teaching assignments or during my free time. On one of my walks, I came across a unique museum not far from the hotel. The Núcleo Museológico da Rua do Sembrano is a small archeological museum built on top of Roman ruins. What’s unique about it is that when you enter the museum, the exhibition area is a series of glass floors so that you can see the ruins underground. They give you cloth shoe coverings to wear as you walk. I admit that I was a little nervous that I might somehow break the glass and plunge underground! Nevertheless, it was a fun experience!
On the weekend, our team leader organized two excursions for us. On Saturday, we took the bus from Beja to Évora. Once in town, a tour guide took us on a walking tour of the medieval city. I especially enjoyed visiting the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Évora. On Sunday, we went on an escorted tour and lunch at the beautiful Hedade dos Gros vineyard. The property is very beautiful and the food at the Headade restaurant was absolutely delicious!
My first experience with Global Volunteers was such a positive one that I am looking forward to my next program. In 2022, I’m already signed up for their newest location in Sicily, Italy for May and the Crete, Greece program in September!
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