Update from Katie Kinsella, ETA in Colombia

Hello potential Fulbrighters,

My name is Katie Kinsella, and I’m a Fulbright ETA living in Cali, Colombia. I wrote a blog a few months back outlining what I’d be doing for the next year in Colombia. Five months in, I wanted to update you all on the successes, challenges, hilarious situations, scary experiences and daily adventures that have defined my time so far here in Colombia. Although I miss hot showers and pumpkin spice lattes, what I’ve discovered here in Colombia about myself, about this beautiful country, and about the inspiring lives of the Colombians I’ve encountered makes everything worth it.

I’ve been called ‘tia de tenis,’ ‘maestra,’ ‘Miss Kinsella,’ ‘teacher Quedi,’ but this is the first time in my life that I’ve been called ‘profe.’ And I have to admit, I really like it. The first time a student called me Professor, I looked around behind me, not realizing the person they were calling was me. This title has been something I have had to live up to. It has motivated me to design every lesson and every class on socially relevant topics that will inspire and challenge my students and call out small and large scale global issues that people so often ignore or choose to overlook. I realized the first day teaching at Universidad del Valle that I would not have to worry about things like indifference or lack of motivation. I also learned fairly quickly that I am teaching a group of revolutionaries! These are students who have seen a lot of the violence in Colombia and are sick of it. They want to see change. No one is silent. They want to be heard. They have overcome a lot in their lives to have a seat in a classroom at UniValle, one of the top 3 best universities in Colombia. They are studying education so they can be that change that they so badly want to see in their country. They are noble, they are daring, they are sometimes extremists. They will be the ones to a light a fire in this country, to scream out to the people in charge who are blatantly failing the Colombian community, to demand justice in places where injustice has permeated all parts of society. They truly are little revolutionaries and I’m both inspired by and slightly scared of what they will accomplish here in Colombia in the next 20 years!

Every Sunday night, I get excited to start the week, to see my university students, and to feel the energy of Universidad del Valle. Throughout the week, I teach 6 different classes for 2-hour class sessions all day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. All of my students are studying to become English teachers, which I just love because I can share with them my classroom experience as well as theoretical knowledge that I gained from my masters program and thesis on bilingual education in San Diego. One of my favorite things about being a professor is office hours! Students sign up for hour sessions- some just want to practice English through conversations and sharing life stories, some bring in articles to analyze, and some of them I’m advising and helping apply to scholarships to study in the US. Office hours have broken down barriers and transformed my students into great friends. Every day I feel honored to be in the same classroom as them. I feel humbled by how they have opened up their lives to me. Some nights I come home exhausted with a raspy voice, some nights I come home feeling more like a psychologist than a professor, and some days I come home feeling like I didn’t even go to ‘work’ because of how much fun I had.

In addition to my time working at the university on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I also am conducting a social project on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Aguablanca, the largest Afro-Colombian community in the country, which is marked by a high level of poverty caused by displacement. I work with a foundation called Fundación Paz y Bien. This non-profit organization consists of a microcredit loan program that gives small loans to local residents to start their own businesses. There is another program that works with displaced people and victims of the drug war with home visits, counseling, and community-wide meetings every Thursday to educate this population on their rights as victims under the “Ley de Victimas”. There is also a branch that works with vulnerable at-risk youth in danger of being recruited for gangs. The organization encompasses everything I believe in about development, with an emphasis on education, leadership, empowerment, and sustainability by creating a path to autonomy, freedom, and independence. On Tuesdays, I hop on a bus that takes me into the heart of Aguablanca, where I work with kids ages 4-18 years old teaching them English in a series of classes I’ve called “Language Empowerment.” I help the teenagers look for jobs, save money, learn about their rights, and help create community leaders by telling them their voice matters. On Thursdays, I work with a population who has widely been overlooked by society: internally displaced people (IDPs), displaced by the violence that has plagued Colombia over the past few decades. I have learned that Colombians are celebrators of life. Despite the hardship they have lived through, this rowdy group of 80-something-year-olds turns every meeting into some kind of dancing and singing performance. I am currently helping them write their life stories so that they can share with the world their reality, a reality that many people around the world have no idea exists.

I’ve realized that I’ve never been more satisfied in terms of work than I have been here in Colombia. I am doing exactly what I have studied to do, what I am most passionate about, what I have been trained in, what I was made to do. I can’t believe how every experience in my life has led me here to this crazy little town that sometimes infuriates me but sometimes inspires me. What a trip.

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