Four months together in the same city in a foreign country will do a lot to bring a group of Americans together. Since I arrived here in Chile, I have had the considerable pleasure of getting to know a very dynamic, intelligent and interesting group of individuals that is volunteering with me here in Antofagasta. Though I came here to get to know Chile, this group of Americans has become almost as big a part of the experience.
There are only 14 of us, so it has been easy to get to know everyone well. About half are in situations similar to my own: just out of college and eager to travel before deciding on the next step, be it settling down with a job in the States or going to graduate school or professional school. Most of the rest are a few years out of college and have grown to love the life of travel. We have collectively managed to work and study our way all over the world, including huge swaths of Latin America and Europe and even parts of Asia and Africa.
However, I find the final two members of our group particularly extraordinary. It is one thing to decide to volunteer abroad for six months when you are young, healthy and (naively) idealistic, but quite another to do so when you are 68 and 71 years old, respectively. Nonetheless, Nancy and Helen have done just that.
For a number of years, Nancy worked in the insurance business. Eventually she got fed up with the grind and made the financially irresponsible decision to retire early so she can do what she loves: teaching. Since then, she has been traveling all over the world teaching English for free. She taught for a year in Ecuador and has spent time in Mexico and China.
Helen was a research scientist at a university in California, but got fed up with the way research is too often dictated by its financial prospects rather than its usefulness to mankind. Chile is not her first volunteer teaching job overseas either; she spent a year in Costa Rica.
The group considers both women inspiring role models. At an age when most people feel like they have worked enough and given enough, these women are still going strong. Unfulfilled by their careers in the States, they gave up the physical comforts and financial security available to come here and teach high school students. Of course, this sort of job is not for everyone, but they are using the skills they have to benefit those in need.
Perhaps what I admire most about Nancy and Helen is that they were not afraid to make the drastic changes necessary to lead a fulfilling and happy existence. Many individuals, I think, live day to day in a barely tolerable job or home situation because they think it would take too much work or too many tough decisions to improve their circumstances. But if Nancy and Helen have taught me anything, it's that it is never too late to be happy.
Justin Cox is a graduate of Scott City High School and Washington University in St. Louis. He is teaching English in Chile.