I never did much when I was in high school. I wasn't exactly the ambitious type. Then when my Mom died, something changed. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and see the world. All I did was work and study. Life is too short to be stuck behind a desk! At that point, I had made a list of places I wanted to visit and Machu Picchu was at the top of that list. Originally, a group of us were going to go; just a quick, week long trip. But that never happened, because there was too much work to be done, bills to pay, and never a good time.
Eventually I came to a major turning point, the company I worked for was switching management, and I wanted to go back to university; it was perfect timing. Fast forward yet another year, and I still hadn't left the country. But, at least I was finally in university. It was not what I expected, at all. I was burnt out and unsure of myself. It seemed as if all my friends were traveling. Most of them, ironically, to Peru. I was bummed.
Then one day in class a kid handed me a flyer for a volunteer group. I went home that night and checked it out, and there was a program in Peru. I went to the presentation two days later and signed up the same night. I was done with excuses and I was determined to make it abroad that very summer! There was no reason not to go.
I even managed to extend my stay. I decided that I would take a TEFL course and had hoped to stay up to a year gaining experience teaching. I needed to know that there was more to life than sending emails and answering phones. I needed to explore at least a little part of the world. Most of all, I needed to make a difference.
I took a big chance and I have never been more glad.
Why did you choose Maximo Nivel?
I was actually with two different organizations while in Peru. The first group, Reach Out Volunteers, had come to the university to talk about their programs. I was so excited to see that they had a program in Peru and that they worked building greenhouses (another of my interests). It was a rash decision, but a necessary one. I was sold, and even added an extra week, although I wanted to stay longer.
To really make my trip worthwhile and experience Peru, I signed up with Maximo Nivel to get my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate. I had done a lot of research and decided that this was the best option for me. They had a school in Cusco, which was, to me, kismet. I also had a good friend volunteer and learn Spanish with Maximo and he was extremely impressed with the organization, so it was a no-brainer in my eyes. I wanted to get my TEFL certification because it would give me an opportunity to go abroad and earn money. I didn't realize how much it would change my life.
What was your favorite part about Peru?
I was lucky enough to go to a few different areas in Peru. My favorite part was learning about the culture and being able to see and touch so much history. I think my favorite memories are the ones where I was able to stay with families in the community. Keep in mind that I had never left Canada, never been on a mountain, and I still don't speak Spanish. Still, the communities were so nice; they were so grateful for all the help and always willing to share and return the help.
What made your experience abroad unique?
I think what made my experience abroad unique, was that I didn't have a rigid plan. I did many things, with many people and organizations. I believe it was that flexibility that gave me so many amazing opportunities. No two trips are ever going to be the same. I am, however, grateful for the organizations that I went with. Both were extremely helpful and supportive.
At Maximo, I was able to live in my own apartment (just one of the options along with home stays and hostels). I was able to see how the people of Cusco lived, and I was on my own as one of them. It was also well balanced with many opportunities to learn the language and participate in local activities. Having the support of either of these groups was essential for backup, which ended up being super important because I got sick. I cannot stress enough just how scary getting sick in another country can be. So again, having the flexibility to work around things that pop up and having support from an organization was not only important, but critical. It really allowed me to have a unique experience abroad, to see more places, and make up for lost time.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
The local staff were amazing throughout the program! Maximo Nivel went above and beyond; these people are amazing! They are friendly and they will make you feel welcome. The thing about Maximo is that they have multiple sites in multiple countries, and yet they are all so well connected, which made all the difference in the end. Maximo thinks of everything. They help you with translations, they help you with planning travel, they have dancing lessons, movie nights, extra help for homework, money exchanges, and accommodation aid. They also have access to a doctor. These people learn your name and make a point to make you feel like part of the team. I am actually so grateful for the support I was given on so many levels.
First, let me explain that I got sick the first week of this program. I had pneumonia and it was brutal. Not only did they help me find a doctor and allow me to take some time to heal, but Claudia, our teacher, even stayed late to help me when I was finally able to come back. Unfortunately, I soon got sick again. I will be honest, I thought that I was about to waste a lot of money not being able to finish the program. Instead, Maximo got me another visit with the doctor, and then after making some tea, we sat down and figured out a way to make it work.
At this point, I had a ticket home. So, although I was invited to stay for the next start date of the program, I was not able. We then decided that I would just do the course online; Maximo was going to make sure I got certified! Once back in Canada, I was matched up with Audra. Audra is part of the team in Costa Rica and a blast to work with. Learning online is not the same as learning on site. Different schedules, different countries, and many issues. Audra was a Saint the entire time. She worked with me through technical difficulties, scheduling issues, and a concussion. She was always an email or Skype call away. She was able to answer any question and give constructive feedback.
I cannot praise Maximo enough for the support that they give all of their students and volunteers!
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I wish that I had not gotten sick and that I could have stayed longer! I am not one for regrets, so there is nothing that I would have really changed. I was still able to see and experience so much.
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
Maximo really tries to make it fun. Therefore, there is no "typical" day. My day with Maximo would generally start with a 20 minute walk from my own apartment. I would get to the school and go straight for the coffee and tea. We would all meet in class and chat for a bit before we would "officially" began. There was a rule that if you were late you had to tell an embarrassing story. One day four of us were late from lunch at the market, which made for an interesting start to class!
We would start with going over any general questions or questions from homework. Maximo makes a point to teach in the style that you will be teaching as a TEFL teacher. We would do a good chunk of learning, and then go for lunch. After lunch we usually did some practical activities and activation. The point is always to get involved. During the week we could observe some of the other TEFL teachers and every Friday we would teach mini-lessons. And, every once in awhile, Maximo would host fun after class activities, such as tours, salsa lessons, cooking classes, and outings to local events and celebrations. Once class was over, we were free to stick around for extra help or wander around to our own devices. Often we would go to dinner and get to know each other. I remember quite a few adventures just trying to find a restaurant, as well as a lot of studying.
Online is obviously different. A Skype call generally lasts as long as it needs to. For me, it was anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the topic. Work would be submitted via email and a time to Skype would be set. During our Skype calls, Audra would offer feedback on the submitted work and answer any questions. Then we would discuss what the next task would be. Again, an online program does not really have a "typical" day. You work at your own pace and deal with any issues that may arise. At the end, you teach six hour long online lessons to a non-English speaker, which has its own unique difficulties, but is such an amazing experience for both you and the learner.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
As I mentioned above, we spent a lot of time looking for places to eat. During my time in Peru, I was able to try some amazing local dishes, beer, and wine; I even managed to try some Guinea Pig and Alpaca! Peru has so much to offer, no matter where you go. There is great food, amazing ruins, culture and history, fresh local produce at the market, entertainment, tours, and rich nature to explore. On evenings or weekends we would go to new restaurants, check out events at the market, watch the parade at the main square (there was a new one every week), or go to the pubs and bars to drink with fellow travelers.
There is always something to do! I was able to go horseback riding to local ruins, visit the salt flats, ride a tuktuk to the market, and go on hikes, hikes, and more hikes! I would always take the opportunity to explore. I went on an overnight boat trip on Lake Titicaca, where I drank and danced with a bunch of strangers. I touched the ocean for the first time in Lima, I climbed a mountain in Huaraz, and I finally saw Machu Picchu.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
During the first part of my trip, I stayed in a lot of hotel/hostels. It was a little hard at first to get used to. Everything was cold; you would sometimes either have no hot water, only hot water, or get electrocuted by the shower, and the toilets are definitely not what they are in Canada. There are all things you learn to work with, or around. Then as I traveled, I also got to stay in local houses. These were less glamorous than hostels/hotels, but so much more memorable.
While at Maximo in Peru, I opted for my own apartment. At this point, I have to admit I was a bit sick of sharing a room. It was a great apartment, large, airy, and furnished. I loved having the freedom and independence that comes with living alone. I could cook what I wanted, when I wanted it. There was no line up for the bathroom or race for the warm water. Plus, the landlady Rosa was very nice and very helpful. Admittedly, if I had not traveled around a bit before, the apartment and independence would have been quite scary and overwhelming.
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
I think no matter what program you choose, you should be prepared to work. Maximo offers a wide variety of programs and you really need to be prepared to put in the effort, whether it is physical or mental. Do your homework and make sure that the program is right for you. The on-site TEFL program is very condensed, so be prepared to work hard. Maximo makes an effort to balance the hard work with fun, so take advantage. And, no matter which program or which country you are thinking of, you can expect a lot of support from Maximo.
Also, take advantage of home stays/hostels and learning Spanish. Maximo tries to keep program participants together so you will end up with a familiar face. You will meet so many great people and gain so much experience.
Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?
First and foremost, my time abroad has given me a drive to learn and experience more of the world. One of the reasons that I started TEFL was so that I would be able to travel and earn money, now I am determined to see and experience as much of the world as possible. My wanderlust has never been so strong. My time abroad also made me realize that I am capable of more than I was aware of. When I am lacking motivation, I remind myself of what I have accomplished traveling abroad on my own. It has also made me realize how lucky I am to be Canadian and to have all the advantages that I take for granted (potable water is a big one!).
Working alongside these communities has also redefined what it means to work hard. However, the biggest impact has definitely been on my career goal. I went to Peru as a science student, and now I am switching to English. Because of my time abroad, I fell in love with teaching English as a foreign language; I love everything about it, getting to know the students, watching their knowledge grow, learning about different cultures, finding answers to puzzling questions and making a difference in their lives. I can't wait to start my career as a teacher. I'm excited about my future and the endless possibilities that encompass being an ESL/TEFL teacher.
Would you recommend Maximo Nivel to others? Why?
I would definitely recommend Maximo Nivel. Hands down, best decision you can make. Whether you are thinking about their TEFL certification program or one of the other many programs that they offer, you will not find a more supportive group of people. They want you to succeed, they want your experience to be amazing, and they want to make a difference in the world.
Katherine is an English student, born and raised in London, Ontario, Canada. She has a business diploma and two years of experience as an administrative assistant. Katherine quit her job to go back to school at Western University. Up until age of 25, she had never left Canada. But after a month abroad, she now volunteers in a few ESL programs and hopes to make ESL teaching her new career.