GoAbroad Interview

Charmaine Pruitt - President

Charmaine Pruitt, President AMPED Abroad

Charmaine is the visionary behind AMPED Abroad. With solid experience building and nurturing positive working relationships with local in-country partners and NGOs in developing nations, Charmaine is no doubt a leading authority on providing one-of-a-kind cultural immersion opportunities. Her resume is a broad and impressive body of work, including international program management, politics, grant administration and non-profit liaising; and secondary education.

How did you originally become involved with AMPED Abroad?

Wow! I am not sure whether there’s enough time or space to cover this. The short answer is that I believe that I was created for AMPED Abroad.

When I look over my life, it seems that I have always had an interest in exploring other cultures. For one, I have a tendency to pick up other languages very quickly. It’s further evidenced by the relationships that I have formed, both personally and professionally. My friends are from various cultures and backgrounds. It’s evidenced by my education, political science major with an international relations concentration. It’s also evidenced by some of the careers that I’ve had, including working as an international program manager and also teaching at a school for international ESL students.

Based on that, I guess you can say the path was being laid for me. After the Great Recession hit and I was laid off work, it was time to walk it out. The benefits that I received from unemployment were channeled into AMPED Abroad’s launch. I also had some help from people who believed in me and my dream.

Volunteer holding a baby turtle

It’s time to break out of your shell and volunteer abroad!

Were you always interested in a career in International Education? What do you think you would be doing now if you hadn’t followed the path to President of AMPED Abroad?

I have always had an interest in doing something on a global or international platform. While I now know that I have a natural bend toward educating people, and helping them to grow and learn, I can’t say that I was always aware of that as an interest of mine. It was just something that I did and I was really good at it. I never gave it a second thought until others pointed it out. Working with the students at INA also helped me to realize that. Yet, I didn’t feel as though I was called to work in a traditional classroom setting. So, the world is my classroom now. If I hadn’t followed the path to AMPED Abroad, I would probably still be working in local government as a grant administrator or department head, helping to fund local non-profit agencies dedicated to helping underserved populations and communities...still wondering where is or what is the missing piece of the puzzle to my life’s purpose.

How did you learn Spanish, and what AMPED Abroad program would you recommend to someone who was hoping to learn as much Spanish as possible during their placement?

I actually learned Spanish in school, here in the states. I started taking Spanish lessons in the fourth grade. I was in an honors program and lessons were given to students enrolled in the program. When I got to junior high school I stopped. I picked up French in high school, which is very similar to Spanish. I studied it for a couple of years. However, Spanish was and is my first love. I just like the way it flows; it’s such a beautiful and fun language.

Volunteers teaching abroad in a school

Volunteering abroad: a two-way learning experience.

I continued with Spanish in college. After graduating, I never used it again. That is, not until I started working at INA. I was amazed at how quickly and how much of it came back to me after being immersed in it on a daily basis (many of INA’s students at that time were from Spanish-speaking countries.) Working with AMPED Abroad’s partners abroad and traveling only reinforced my language skills.

There’s no substitute for complete cultural immersion when it comes to learning Spanish -- or for learning any foreign language. For those wanting to learn as much Spanish as possible, I definitely recommend Guatemala. It doesn’t get any more authentic than that. When people are serious about learning and gaining a greater mastery of Spanish, Guatemala is usually at the top of the list. AMPED Abroad offers Spanish classes in Guatemala. For those that also want to volunteer, free Spanish lessons are offered with their placement in Guatemala.

It is important to mention that we have plans soon to offer Spanish classes only options in some our other Spanish-speaking host countries as well.

If you could leave for an AMPED Abroad program tomorrow, which would you choose and why?

Really, you’re going to make me choose? So, not fair (chuckling). All of our host countries and projects are really awesome. I am going to Ghana to knock the chill off. It’s unseasonably cold in Texas right now. And while Latin America will always be my first love, Latin American culture is also closer to western culture compared to Africa or Asia. From that standpoint, Ghana, shakes things up a bit  for me (in a good way) and opens my eyes to something that is less familiar. I would probably volunteer to teach since that’s where I see myself being able to make the biggest contribution due to my background and experience.

AMPED Abroad offers a variety of programs from Health Care to Conservation, but tells volunteers that if they can’t find what they are looking for, just call and you’ll work to find them their perfect volunteer or internship abroad.

What is the most unique request you have had?

We do our best to try to pair volunteers and interns with placements that closely match their interests. I recall an inquiry from someone with an interest in fashion design. That was a tough one because our placements are community-centered and are set up to benefit the community in some way. Our in-country partners suggested a volunteer placement at a local theater company helping with the costumes. The question then became: how does this benefit the community? AMPED Abroad then suggested maybe that one of the PR interns could work with this particular volunteer to organize a charity event featuring a community fashion show, with proceeds going to the children’s hospital. That’s just an example of how we work with our in-country partners to think outside the box and marry ideas for possible win-win outcomes for the volunteer or intern; and the community. As it turned out, the person who submitted the inquiry was not able to follow through with their plans to volunteer abroad. Nonetheless, I think it was an awesome and creative effort on our part.

How do you go about finding new volunteer or intern placements abroad?

We work closely with our in-country teams to identify suitable placements abroad. Being that they are local, they really do have the lay of the land, which is very important when it comes to helping to ensure the safety of AMPED Abroad’s volunteers and interns.

Your programs abroad and mission as an organization really encourage people to take their experience abroad into their own hands. You’re open about the fact that participants will face inconveniences and be challenged by their placements. What specific piece of advice would you give to someone who has never been to a developing country?

Can I offer several pieces of advice? (1) Research your host country beforehand, (I recommend before signing up) in order to gain some familiarity about the people and the culture. (2) Examine why you want to volunteer or intern abroad and how your background, skills, and experience will benefit the project. Make sure that you’re doing if for the right reasons. (3) Be flexible, be open-minded, and be prepared to take some initiative. Not everything will be spelled out or laid out.

Which volunteer program would be the best fit for someone who has never left their home country?

I would recommend Costa Rica. It’s a nice, laid-back country. It’s a good place to start and get your feet wet. While it has a thriving tourism industry, Costa Rica still remains loyal to its cultural roots. Tourists help to give the country an air of familiarity. So while you feel and know that you’re away from home, you still feel right at home at the same time.

However, it’s important to note that the type of project they’re looking for might only be available in a host country(ies) outside of Costa Rica. In that case, I would recommend Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, and Ghana in that order.

As for the widest range of project options, Ecuador, Peru, and Ghana are tops! We have everything under the sun in those host countries.  

AMPED Abroad is all about energy and putting the personal touch into each of their programs. What kind of in-country support do you give to your participants?  

Depending on the host country, volunteers receive airport pick-up and drop-off; as well as orientation, and emergency in-country support. In addition, we follow up with volunteers in person, by phone, and/or by email to make sure that everything is going well with their placement and host family accommodations (if they’re living with a local host family.) At every step of the way, we try to remind volunteers that they have people who care to support them and who want them to have rewarding learning experiences; and who have made their safety and well-being top priorities.

What are three characteristics of the ideal AMPED Abroad volunteer? 

If it must be narrowed down to three ideal characteristics, then I think the name says it all.   AMPED stands for Adventure Minded People Exploring Diversity. So, AMPED Abroad’s ideal volunteers have a thirst for adventure - willing to go outside their comfort zone. They need to be curious and eager to learn. Finally, they need to be open-minded and willing to examine people, things, issues, and situations from other perspectives.

AMPED Abroad has branched out from Central and South America and now includes internships and volunteer programs in Ghana. What made you choose Ghana as your first country program outside of Central and South America?  

Latin America is home base because of pre-existing relationships and the trust that was established as a result. As we carefully and thoughtfully branch out into other regions and countries, we want to make sure that our relationships mirror what we’ve been able to establish in Latin America. Ghana offered that to us. Further, Ghana has a reputation for being the safest and most stable country in Africa.

What is your favorite memory from your time working with AMPED Abroad?  

My favorite memory was when AMPED Abroad received its first volunteer, a medical volunteer in Guatemala.

What is on the horizon for AMPED Abroad? Any new and exciting projects we should know about?  

We’ve always got something new and exciting brewing, projects and otherwise, especially in Ecuador, Peru, and Ghana. In fact, I can’t think of much they we don’t offer or are not able to offer in either of those host countries. What’s featured on our website is only a small sampling.  

Local produce market

Market to market to find great souvenirs!

Again, we’re working on offering stand alone Spanish classes in Ecuador and Peru. We’re also working to get projects posted for Bolivia and we plan to offer Spanish classes only option there as well.

We’re going to begin offering programs that are designed with the under 18 demographic in mind.

We’re hopeful about building a relationship with South Africa.

While I can’t go into any details, long range, we are strategizing about means to further assist the communities and projects that we work with abroad; and endeavors that will help us to serve AMPED Abroad alumni. These ideas are pretty lofty and are going to require some time, planning, and significant effort to launch. Hopefully, everything will fall into place. All I can say is: Stay tuned!