This past summer I spent nine weeks in a Spanish immersion program at Kukulcan Educational Spanish Community in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I had tried learning Spanish in a classroom setting several times but it would never really stick. So, when I decided to make immigration and refugee services a career focus, I knew it was time for drastic measures. I spoke with the UH Office of International Studies and found that Kukulcan offered a Spanish for Social Workers program which seemed to be a perfect fit.
I must admit the program was pretty rigorous since I only had two years of high school Spanish to draw from (which I learned over 12 years ago). However, with the help of my host family, roommates, and a couple of good tutors I slowly progressed. I think the biggest help, however, was just going out into the street and talking to people. I often felt foolish speaking like a two year old, using a combination of Spanish, English, and improvised sign language, but most people were patient and helpful as I made my way around. I think being immersed in another culture really makes you understand the importance of practicing cultural competency when servicing clients.
In addition to the Spanish program at Kukulcan, I completed an independent study class in order to receive GCSW credit over the summer. I completed a literature review and annotated bibliography focused on trauma in immigrant and refugee populations. Because of the massive amount of reading I had to complete, I was desperate for a quiet place to study (away from home). But as luck would have it, the only library in town was closed indefinitely for renovations. So, I put my social work skills to use and found an English school that allowed me to use their offices in exchange for teaching an English conversation class twice a week. This turned out to be an unexpected great experience. The students I taught were very enthusiastic and challenged me to come up with new lesson plans and activities every week.
Of course my trip was not all work. I’m training to be a social worker, so naturally I made time for play self-care. My favorite past-time was strolling through the “Zocolo” (something like a town square). There was guaranteed to be something going on every weekend including free concerts, cultural performances, and of course a JumboTron showing the soccer games during the World Cup. Kukulcan also sponsored trips to various cities around southern Mexico every weekend. A few that I attended included Mexico City, Teotihuacan, and Tepoztlan. I loved learning about the history and culture of such ancient societies. My only complaint was there was not enough time to take it all in. There were so many pyramids and cathedrals, each with such a rich history that there was simply no way to get it all in a single day trip.
Overall, my experience in Mexico was great. There were times when I did not think it was possible to complete my independent study and the language program simultaneously. However, with the right combination of self-care and time management (including scheduled time for procrastination) it all managed to work itself out. I still need many years of Spanish study before I can call myself fluent, but I feel I now have a good foundation to build upon.