A teacher's adventures in Chile

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Having just graduated from Washington University in St. Louis six weeks ago, and saddled with student loans, I have decided to do what anyone in my position would do: I'm moving to another continent to work for free.

"Free" might not be the most accurate way to characterize my remuneration, since I will be provided with room and board, but for the next six months I will be a volunteer teacher in the South American city of Antofagasta, Chile. Under the auspices of WorldTeach, a Harvard-based nonprofit nongovernmental organization, I will be teaching English to fifth- through eighth-graders and living with a Chilean couple and their two children.

Antofagasta, my new home, is a port city on the Tropic of Capricorn amidst the Atacama Desert (the world's driest).

I have already been accepted to law school, but I chose to defer enrollment for a year in order to work and travel abroad. Having never lived more than a two-hour drive from my hometown of Scott City, I wanted to take a breather and to see more of the world before subjecting myself to the three-year grind of law school.

I minored in Spanish at Washington University and spent a couple of months in Spain last summer where I ran with the bulls in Pamplona, so I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country.

After an exhaustive search for work abroad, I discovered that the only marketable skill I possess with my degree in philosophy and political science is that I can speak English (on the bright side, though, my education did get me into a great law school). Luckily, I eventually found WorldTeach, applied to their pilot program in Chile and was accepted.

As I write this, I leave for Chile in a matter of days. I am currently in the middle of the most difficult packing job I can imagine. Though I will be stationed in the desert, I plan on traveling throughout the entire country. In a nation that is more than 2,600 miles long (but averages just 110 miles across), that means I am likely to hit every major climate zone in the world, including the bitterly cold Patagonia region in the south (mere miles from the tip of Antarctica); the bone-dry north; the Mediterranean-like central region; and the snowy Andes Mountains to the east. With a good deal of suitcase space already taken up with the more formal clothing required for my job, little room remains for rain and winter gear, not to mention books, CDs, laptop, etc.

I'll fly out of St. Louis at 12:30 p.m. on July 6. After connections in Chicago and Miami, I will arrive in Santiago about 19 hours later. There I will meet with the 14 other volunteers and our support staff. After a few days spent exploring the capital and adjusting to our new home, we will take the 20-hour bus ride north to Antofagasta, where we will spend the following two weeks in language instruction and training. Then, ready or not, classes start on July 26.

This column will run weekly through my six-month stay in Chile. I look forward to relaying my adventures to Southeast Missouri. Feel free to send any questions or comments to jbcox@ wustl.edu.

Justin Cox of Scott City will be sending letters back throughout his stay in Chile.

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