After a 30-year professional teaching career, Global Volunteers alumna Pat Harper said she’s not finished teaching! In her 80s when she first served with us in Vietnam in 2014, she was drawn to the the opportunity to again help others learn. The joy she found teaching in retirement on a service program in Cuba not only confirmed she still “has it,” but practicing English with Cuban students was a great way to make young friends. She speaks here to Social Media Manager Sam Pinakoulaki.
Did you find any special meaning in your recent Cuba service program?
This whole experience meant a lot to me. I was happily surprised to discover that I still found joy in teaching and learning. Even though I’m “old,” I learned I enjoy being in the company of young adults by teaching in retirement.
Speaking of company, did anyone make a strong impression on you?
I worked closely with Yanel, a young Cuban, in the four-hectare organic garden for several hours. On one occasion, I was pretty muddy by the time we’d finished so I cleaned up using several basins of water which the local gardeners had prepared for me – one to wash in and one to rinse. Yanel also worked with me teaching English conversation at the community center. We used the paintings of Norman Rockwell for discussion to encourage reading, and to improve the students’ English and to learn new vocabulary words.
Then there were three exceptional students. A couple, who actually attended nearly all the classes I taught. The first day I arrived to teach, they were waiting outside the community center eager for help preparing for an English test the next day. They had a sheet with 68 questions that they could be asked and were to be judged by a panel of three teachers from their trade school on their ability to answer in English. They were hoping to get jobs in the tourism industry. There was also a young adult student named Raphael. He was preparing for an upcoming job interview in English, he was applying to work in a resort area that hosts Canadian and other English-speaking tourists. So I helped him prepare for his interview. They were all so enthusiastic to learn from me.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”– Neale Donald Walsch, American author
What was your primary service assignment? And how did you contribute to the partner community?
My primary assignment was teaching conversational English in an “informal” setting to the local Cubans who came to the Baptist community center for lessons. Those who attended were either beginners wanting to learn English, or more advanced wanting to improve their conversational skills. Tourism is a major industry in Cuba and English is a must. Even a waiter at our hotel asked me for some help with his English. He realized if he had better English skills, he’d be able to do his job more efficiently. There were many eager students. They all do like pronunciation work. The older students are very focused on their learning. Rafael practiced his vocabulary on nautical terms. He wants a job at a resort taking tourists for rides in a catamaran and scuba diving. He is only 21 and has done so many things – elementary school, sport school, high school, electrician school, military service, art school and lifeguard school.
Did you experience any surprising or memorable moments?
Oh, yes! Melissa one of my students couldn’t attend our last session of class. So her boyfriend Leandro, who was also one of my students, gave me his cell phone so I could watch a recorded video in which Melissa was saying goodbye. She had to work and couldn’t attend. It was so well done, and very touching thanking me for helping her. It was wonderful to hear that I had helped her so much. I never expected to have this experience while teaching in retirement. She’d worked very hard to get her English perfect for the video. Leonardo was delighted with my reaction too.
On our last day of teaching, we had a big group join in to have pizza – Cindy, Pat, Yadi, Yanel, some ladies from the sewing circle, Idelia and Eduardo. It was a very festive occasion.
What did you learn about the culture?
I learned that Cubans are very friendly and welcoming. The practice of kissing on the cheek to say “hello” shows a lot of respect and affection for a fellow human being. I was surprised and certainly didn’t expect to be kissed by my students each time they came in for a class. Even in the streets and in the restaurants you’d see people kissing on the cheek, greeting each other. I witnessed firsthand what life is really like in Cuba. This was accomplished through the many conversations I had with my students. I was able to learn about the Cubans’ everyday life and history.
“I learned that Cubans are very friendly and welcoming! I witnessed firsthand what life is really like in Cuba.”– Cuba Volunteer Pat Harper
How does this service program differ from other types of travel you’ve done?
The other types of travel I’ve done only gave me a “surface experience” of the culture. The service programs that Global Volunteers provides with the “infusion” into the community, gives ordinary people just like me, the opportunity to show what Americans are really like. Through cross-cultural learning and understanding, the local people are able to learn about us, and we about them. Indeed, one person truly can make a difference! I tell my friends that they too can learn by teaching in retirement, and working on a Global Volunteers service program. It’s the best trip I’ve ever taken!!