Stephanie Castellano - 2016 Program Participant

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

I’ve always wanted to spend more time traveling than the two weeks per year Americans are typically allotted when we work full time. I also wanted to really get to know a foreign place. When hopping from city to city and country to country, it’s difficult to glean anything but a superficial look at how the locals live. I knew that volunteering for a program that would bring me into contact with locals would give me a more meaningful understanding of the place I was visiting.

Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Why did you choose Fundación En Vía?

Fundación En Vía sits right at the intersection of three of my interests: women's development, education, and cultural preservation. It's a non-profit organization that gives micro-loans to women in communities near Oaxaca de Juárez, the capital of Oaxaca, which is one of Mexico's poorest states.

Oaxaca also has some of Mexico's richest and longest-standing cultural traditions; the artisanal trades (like weaving and pottery) and the regional cuisine attracts tourists from all over the world. Many of the women in En Vía’s microfinance program make a living by producing artisanal handicrafts, running comedores (traditional restaurants), or working in other trades that help make Oaxaca the unique cultural destination that it is. When I saw that En Vía also offered free English classes in some of the communities it works in, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to lend my skills to the organization as an English teacher while also learning more about Oaxaca and microfinance in general.

The view from Hierve el Agua in Oaxaca, Mexico

The view from Hierve el Agua, in Oaxaca, Mexico

What was your favorite part about Oaxaca?

What initially attracted me to Oaxaca was the city’s beautiful historic center (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site), as well as the promise of the delicious local cuisine (which didn’t disappoint!). But after I arrived and settled in, I realized how much more this city has to offer. It has a peaceful, small-town vibe, but there is always something going on – live music, dance, theater, new exhibits at local museums and art galleries, markets where you can buy fresh produce and traditional handicrafts. Surrounding the city are world-class archaeological sites and artisanal villages. Every day spent in Oaxaca is a learning experience!

What makes Fundación En Vía unique?

En Vía is really accomplishing something special in Mexico with its microfinance program for women. Microfinance is nothing new in Mexico, but what sets En Vía apart is its unique approach: it uses responsible tourism as a means of funding its microfinance program and offers education and professional development courses to the women receiving the loans to ensure their success in starting and sustaining small businesses. The education and personalized attention each of En Vía's borrowers receives also results in an extremely low default rate on their loans- something Mexico's larger microfinance organizations haven't been able to achieve.

Tell us about the staff at Fundación En Vía.

The staff at En Vía are a dedicated, competent, and friendly group. The volunteers running the English program have worked hard to build an effective curriculum for both children and adults, and they are ready and willing to support volunteer English teachers through one-on-one training, regular team meetings, and access to online resources.

One of the best things about all my experiences abroad has been to travel to a far, unknown destination and, once there, finding people who are interesting, enjoyable, and doing good work in the world!

A tapete in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

A tapete (a traditional handwoven rug) in progress in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

At the end of every trip, there will always be things you’ll wish you had done differently. For me, it was not making enough time to journal about my experiences. When traveling, it’s often the small things that will make the biggest impact on you (in Oaxaca, for example, the whiff of fresh tortillas in the morning, the sight of indigenous women in their brightly-colored aprons, navigating cobbled streets while balancing heavy baskets on their heads, the crackling of the fireworks that are used to celebrate occasions large and small), but there are so many of these moments that it’s easy for their memory to fade with time, as poignant as they are. Writing can be the best way to preserve that sense of wonder and excitement you experience every day when traveling.

How was your typical day in Oaxaca?

While in Oaxaca, I was very lucky to be able to take Spanish classes Mondays through Fridays, at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, which also houses the En Vía offices. En Vía’s English volunteers are asked to teach classes at least twice a week, so on Mondays and Wednesdays, I would wake up at 7:30 a.m., study Spanish until 1 p.m., grab a delicious (and inexpensive!) lunch from a taco or torta stand in a nearby park, and then climb onto a local bus with other volunteers to head out to one of the villages to teach. Because the weather in Oaxaca is dry and warm for much of the year, we were usually able to teach outside in gardens near the main church or municipal building; a beautiful setting, and one that made it easy for us to incorporate lots of lively games into the English curriculum!

After a two-hour class, our volunteer team would take a colectivo (a shared taxi) back to Oaxaca. On the walk back to my apartment, I would sometimes stop at a street vendor’s stall for an elote (corn on the cob that is slathered in mayonnaise and sprinkled with lime juice, chili pepper, and queso fresco).

The Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán,Oaxaca, Mexico

The lovely Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, in Oaxaca, Mexico

What did you enjoy most about Oaxaca, outside of teaching?

There is always so much to do in Oaxaca that it’s difficult to pick just one favorite activity! I never got tired of simply walking around the city, admiring the colonial architecture and bright colors of the buildings, stopping for an agua fresca, or ducking into a 300-year-old church to marvel at its ornate interior.

What kind of housing did you have in Oaxaca? What did you like most about it?

I lived in a studio apartment in a quaint neighborhood north of Oaxaca’s historic center. One of the other En Vía volunteers helped me find it, very lucky for me! I did some research on how to find housing in Oaxaca before I arrived, which helped me get oriented very quickly, but I’m glad I waited until I had a feel for the city before actually securing an apartment.

How did your time teaching in Mexico change you?

Knowing that I can make my way in a foreign city has given me a fresh sense of confidence in myself. Traveling – even when you make mistakes (and you will!) – leaves you feeling more capable, more resilient. I also came back with a deeper sense of gratitude. Not everyone has the opportunity to have this kind of enriching experience. I’m so lucky I was able to do what I did. If you have the means (or the will) to travel or volunteer abroad, do it. There’s a big, beautiful world out there!