GoAbroad Interview

Josué Alcántara - Director of Training

Josué Alcántara - Director of Training

Born in Puerto Rico, Josue moved to the Dominican Republic when he was four years old, later returning to Puerto Rico at the age of 13. After completing his degree in psychology, Josue became a special education and elementary school teacher in Puerto Rico. At the age of 23, Josue joined the Peace Corps as an environmental education volunteer in Nicaragua and has continued traveling to different countries every few years ever since.

You are originally from Puerto Rico. How did you get connected with Maximo Nivel?

Since I was a child, I always enjoyed traveling. I grew up between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, traveling to several parts of the U.S. often. Also, during high school, I carried out several missions trips with churches to Colombia and Mexico. So, you can say the travel bug definitely bit me pretty early on, and it definitely infected all of me.

After university, I decided to join the Peace Corps where I served as an environmental education volunteer in Nicaragua for 27 months. After ending my Peace Corps agreement, I backpacked through most of Central America for three months and that’s when it just clicked, I needed to continue traveling and working abroad on a permanent basis. So, I started looking for international opportunities in the areas of social development and education, and that’s when I found Maximo Nivel. I saw a job listing online, sent in my application, and within two weeks I was already boarding a plane to Peru to begin as a field manager with Maximo Nivel.

Josue Alcantara at the Maximo Nivel Office in Costa Rica

At the Maximo Nivel Nucleo Office in San Jose, Costa Rica

Based on your experience as a field manager in Peru, what makes Maximo Nivel’s programs in Peru special?

I fell in love with Cusco and Peru the second I arrived, the place itself is so magical and beautiful and the people are just amazing! Because I really care for making an impact in the community and really addressing their needs, I immediately found myself useful as a field manager in Cusco, as there really are a lot of economic and educational needs. Every time I went to an existing project or developed a new project with Maximo, not only did I immediately identify areas where we could help out and bring huge impact, but the people were also very welcoming and so appreciative of even the smallest help we would bring.

I always consider that volunteering or an internship opportunity is about really making a difference, and the projects in Cusco really bring huge impacts to the lives of the people and the communities.

After moving on to become director of international programs, you were promoted to your current role. What makes you dedicated to the mission of Maximo Nivel?

When I first began with Maximo, I noticed that the field managers, who are out in the field every day, are the ones that identify needs in each project and create a budget for addressing those needs on a monthly budget. So, I was personally responsible for the amount of impact that was created in each of the projects and that really helped me get behind the mission of Maximo. It’s not just filling out paperwork and taking pretty pictures, there is true impact being created and there are true needs being addressed.

Maximo Nivel really has the goal of and the heart for contributing to the communities. I’ve worked with other organizations that love talking about what they do and the impact they have in communities, but spend most of their resources just talking or ?planning” on helping, but rarely ever SHOW any results. After having been entrusted with more responsibilities and getting to know Maximo more, I was able to see the real impact that Maximo brings to the communities.

Maximo has a monthly humanitarian budget in every country, directly funding initiatives within projects in the form of donations. With volunteers, we carry out medical campaigns in communities that don’t have access to medical attention or we provide English scholarships for the most interested people from almost all our projects in each country. We actively require field managers to develop new projects that really need our help or restructuring the help we provide in long-term projects to really address their needs. We fully fund construction programs that provide infrastructure for education, medical attention, hygiene, meals, community organization, and even housing for communities at risk. We provide local families with the opportunity to have their own family run business and increase their own economy by hosting our participants, and they receive constant coaching from the international team about how to improve their business. And these are just some examples, but there are so many more.

Across all of Maximo Nivel’s programs, what do you think sets you apart from your competitors?

I would say that there are two main factors that definitely set us apart from our competitors. First, I need to acknowledge that our client service is incomparable. From the moment a participant arrives at the airport until they end their program, they are being guided, instructed, coached, and taken care of by an amazing team of people who believe that by providing great service, anticipating and preventing any potential issues, and positively impacting our participants’ experiences, the more they will enjoy their time, the happier they will be in a foreign country, the more they’ll be inspired by the people and the needs around them, and the more likely it is for them to return and/or spread the word about our programs. This is very important, because the way that Maximo works, the more participants we have in all of our programs, the more we’re able to fund projects and provide support to the communities we care about.

Second, I believe that the way our programs are structured significantly sets us apart. Every participant receives full guidance and support throughout their program. First, they receive a thorough orientation about their program, the culture, safety, adventure opportunities, etc. They also receive a walking city tour where our staff point out the most important landmarks and their recommendations for food, fun, transportation, tourism, etc.

If they are a volunteer or intern, they are guided to their project and shown how to use the local transportation, introduced to everyone at the project, and guided on the specific tasks they will carry out on a daily basis, and even trained on how to carry out new tasks if needed. If they’re a Spanish student or a TEFL Course participant they have highly qualified professors and instructors guiding their learning and constantly challenging them to bring out their best in the shortest time possible by following our syllabus and curriculum. If they’re doing an adventure and culture program, they are paired with the best professionals to ensure they have the best time possible and receive exactly the experience they need with as little setbacks as possible or none at all.

Our staff is constantly visiting every participant at their project, class, house, or activity in order to ensure that they are enjoying their time and getting the most out of their experience.

Medical volunteers in rural Peru

With two medical Volunteers in a rural community in Cusco, Peru

You were a Peace Corps volunteer before joining the field of international education as a professional. How does this experience impact your daily life still today?

There are two big lessons I learned from Peace Corps. First, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” And secondly, ”If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

During my Peace Corps service, I ran into many organizations and individuals who really had a desire to make a positive impact, to change someone’s life, to leave a positive print in the world, yet never put much time into considering how to carry this out. Some brought huge sums of money or many donations to give to children and people in need; others brought a packaged development model or plan from somewhere else and expected it to fit all communities. Time after time I saw most of these contributions go to waste or even negatively affect the communities.

One example is a big batch of gummy vitamins donated to children and families without the education of how to take them, causing vitamin poisoning in several children and the loss of the community’s trust in other organizations. Another example was a huge library built in a rural community with books, computers, and internet, without realizing that there was a 90 percent illiteracy rate in the community, causing the community to sell all the donations to get money for food instead of using them. Both of these cases show that there are great intentions, but we forget that giving and providing material things don’t really make much of an impact unless it goes hand in hand with education and a proper needs assessment.

From day one, Peace Corps taught me how to carry out several needs assessment techniques that help me and any energy, time, and resources I bring with me to REALLY contribute to a need, instead of imposing my ideas of what others need. This has especially helped me out with my current lifestyle of moving around every one to three years to a new country and working in social development and education. These lessons have helped me to understand that I must first integrate into a community, learn from them, understand them, and feel their needs in order to utilize my experience and knowledge adequately in helping them satisfy their own needs.

How do you help ensure Maximo Nivel applicants are prepared for the life-changing experiences that await them?

I believe that no one is truly prepared for change; a few welcome change and embrace it, some have a disposition to let change happen if it needs to, yet most are opposed to change in general. Let’s face it, change is uncomfortable, hard, tough, and is usually accompanied by painful experiences, yet it’s the only constant in life.

To help applicants prepare for such a huge step, we first make sure to have an amazing team dedicated just to help applicants throughout the application process. Our client service and admissions team is comprised of very knowledgeable and enthusiastic people that are happy to answer any questions about the countries we’re in and the programs we offer. And because we receive applications from all over the world, this team is also very international, intercultural, multilingual, and very resourceful in helping our applicants in whichever way they can before they embark on their journey.

During the application process, our admissions team coaches applicants on all aspects of their program needed for them to be fully prepared for their adventure, including small details like: what electricity sockets are like, what to pack, what transportation is like, what currency to take and exchange rates, even what to bring as gifts to host families if they’re interested.

But what I consider one of the greatest assets of Maximo in preparing participants is that we understand the participants’ profiles. We prepare for the different personality types and different expectations participants bring, and we do our best to set up the ideal conditions for change to be less shocking to participants once they arrive in country. We try to provide participants with comfort, safety, and guidance through great host families, adequate orientations, a city tour, having a great structure in place at projects and courses, and having a team available 24/7 in order to ease the transition.

We also take great pride in our institutes, which allow a safe environment for participants to meet other travelers and many locals that are eager to exchange and interact with someone with a different language, culture, background, and experience than their own, providing participants with a set of peers going through the same exact experiences and locals that can help ease them into the community. We believe that by providing all these factors, participants’ stress level decreases and they are more open to engaging with all those different aspects of the programs they’ll be exposed to and are able to integrate much quicker. Therefore, Maximo creates the conditions that allows participants to be more prone to focus their energies into contributing to their program, enjoying the cultural differences and challenges, learning and growing, and being inspired by their experience.

Volunteer with kids in Chocco, Cusco, Peru

With two children from the community of Chocco, Cusco, Peru

What does Maximo Nivel do to help participants make the most of their time abroad?

The secret to helping participants be more involved and utilize their time effectively is having staff that are actually involved in the programs themselves.

For example, in internship and volunteering programs, field managers do a great job at developing projects and creating structure within projects. This means that before any participant is placed in a project, a field manager has met with the project director, all the staff, the target population, and the community involved in the project in order to identify their specific needs and how Maximo can contribute to their needs.

After they’ve identified the needs, they actually go in as a volunteer themselves and try out all the different initiatives and activities that will address the project’s needs. Once they’ve identified all these areas, tested out what works and what doesn’t work, then they write out a guide to the project made specifically for the participants that will volunteer or intern in that project giving them all the specific details needed for them to be successful within that project. When a participant arrives, the field manager introduces them to the project and guides them on all aspects of their interaction with the program and ensures they know what to do so they can continue to carry out all the tasks themselves.

Another example is with our TEFL course. We’ve created a great curriculum and amazing materials that ensure participants will learn quickly and efficiently by integrating the theory within the actual course teaching methodology and combining that with practical applications with real students from the community. The key factors in this program are our amazing instructors that have gone through our TEFL course themselves, have a lot of experience teaching abroad, and address the expectations of the participants into the actual course, helping them achieve their goal of becoming certified and preparing them for actually finding a Teaching English job abroad, just like the instructors have done.

In your role, how do you help the organization continue to evolve and grow to meet the needs of participants?

As Director of Training, one of my goals is to create a training curriculum for on-boarding new employees and continue developing skills with existing employees in order to help all Maximo teams embrace our goal, mission, and our culture easier, which are all centered around providing participants with the best service possible and creating a positive impact in the communities.

Because I’ve grown within the organization from being a field manager to director of international programs, and now Director of Training, I’ve been able to see Maximo from different angles and have been able to appreciate the organization as a whole, identifying strengths and areas for improvement. And because of my studies in psychology, my TEFL certification and experience in teaching, and my experience with different people, I like to think that I’ve developed a keen eye for needs and a particular communication style that really helps me connect with all levels of the organization and transmit a clear message that allows proper training. I believe in Maximo’s mission, and therefore, I use my capacities and experience to help in its development and constant evolution.

What is the most rewarding part about your job?

For me the most rewarding part of my job is having developed the “confianza” (trust) of the owners, the managers, and employees that come to me whenever there is a training need and count on me to develop new training, carry it out, and propose follow-ups. Every day I’m greeted with new challenges, new issues, new areas for growth that give my role in this organization true significance and keep me busy, always carrying out research for new training methodologies, developing new material, and challenging me on a daily basis to grow and foster new knowledge. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel to all Maximo locations in order to train or help out when needed, which goes hand in hand with my personal goals.

Man preparing to go volcano boarding at Volcan Cerro Negro in Nicaragua

About to go volcano boarding at Volcan Cerro Negro, Leon, Nicaragua

What can we expect from Maximo Nivel in 2016?

I’m excited for Maximo and how it’s developing. Programs are becoming even more solidified. The internship program is flourishing with more interns applying every month with more specific interests in conservation, medicine, education, and business development, which bring great opportunities for the communities.

The TEFL program is getting more and more reknown, with higher number of students each month, including many of our local English clients that have achieved an advanced level from our own teachers. With more volunteers signing up, we’re expanding our social help, meaning more projects and new project types being developed in each country. The amount of Spanish students and Spanish immersion students is growing, with students taking more and more hours each week; more university groups are signing on for our university credit courses, and more professionals are coming to Maximo to improve their Spanish skills in order to advance professionally.

We’re also having more applicants interested in our special certification courses in yoga, scuba, and surfing, meaning that Maximo is expanding even more in education. The summer Spanish camp for teenagers last year was a success and we’re expecting even better outcomes for this summer.

I think in general, Maximo Nivel is just growing, which makes me extremely happy being that the more it grows, the more impact we bring to the communities, and the more opportunity we have to be able to inspire our participants. So, expect top notch teams, amazing programs, excellent education, and an adventure of a lifetime!