Interview conducted on May 15th by IS Major Communications Intern, Ayu Iwaoka
Emily Woerfel, 2010 UW Alum triple major with International Studies, Spanish and Linguistics, is an ESL specialist at Colegio Abat Oliba Loreto in Spain. “I have always been fascinated by other languages and found them to be the single greatest way of making real connections with people. There are so many tools coming out technology-wise that are probably going to make learning a second language unnecessary, perhaps even obsolete, but despite this I will always be an avid supporter of learning as many languages as you can. There is no technology that can imitate true human connection,” says Woerfel.
What resources did you find useful upon/after graduation for deciding your career path?
For me, studying abroad was the first big turning point in what my future would soon become. When I came back from studying in Spain my only goal was to return, and the University helped me do that. I was lucky that the Study Abroad resource center on campus had some great information to get me started and looking into what sorts of things I could hope to do abroad. Unfortunately for Americans, it isn’t as easy as picking up and moving to Europe and looking for work. Here we are immigrants and finding a job requires a visa, which requires a job, which requires a visa…you get the idea. But teaching English is a way to get around this problem. When I started my job search over seven years ago, I did what every good millennial does to start with: I Googled it. I typed in some version of “Americans work in Spain”, and the first two links brought me to teaching programs with CIEE, (the company I had studied abroad with), and the similar, (if not identical), program sponsored by the Spanish government, “North American Culture and Language Assistants in Spain”. After investing a few frustrated hours on the government’s hardly navigable website, I had applied for the program I would be working for a few months later.
How did you end up at where you are?
When people ask me this question I tend to go all the way back to high school when a teacher of mine told me I had a gift at speaking Spanish and I should continue. If not for her, I probably would have followed my other dream of becoming a veterinarian, and never would have joined the FIG which started me on the path to being a Spanish and International Studies major. Like I said, I’ve always enjoyed learning languages and trying to understand cultures so the double major was a natural fit for me. I still remember my International Studies and Spanish professors with great respect and fondness. I don’t think I ever had a professor who wasn’t 150% committed to preparing the most engaging and thought-provoking class possible. Despite the fantastic formation by these professors, I felt that in order to complete my education, and especially for my degrees, I needed to study abroad.
From the minute I stepped off the bus in Seville, I felt an instant connection to the ground beneath my feet. This has happened to me in other cities and places over the years and it is a feeling of comfort and pure belonging. A feeling of relief, almost, that your soul has finally arrived to the place that is has been doing everything it can to get to.
I am certainly not the first nor the last student who has come home from studying abroad with only one goal in mind: how can I get back there? The North American Language and Culture Assistants program allowed me to do that. Nowadays there are other options for people who want to teach abroad in Spain, (as well as other places), which even combine a Master’s or Graduate degree at the same time of teaching, and some of them for free. Others, like programs offered by CIEE, also combine it with a TEFL certification course that is done in the country where you will be teaching as well. But for me, as a recent grad with some debt, the government-sponsored program, (which is free to apply to and has no fees whatsoever), was the perfect fit for me.
I spent three years as a bilingual assistant in classrooms all over Andalucía. There was a huge learning curve for me, as I tried for the first time to explain a language that had always come naturally. (How do you describe the verb TO BE in English to a bunch of Spanish-speaking 10 year olds? If you can answer this question, go teach abroad NOW!) But over the years I got the hang of it and began to truly enjoy sharing not only my language but also my culture. I was able to represent my country for what it truly is, not for how it is seen in the news or portrayed in movies.
After three years as an assistant, it was time to move on to something a little bigger. During my second year I broke my mother’s number one rule, (“whatever you do, do NOT fall in love with a Spaniard,”), and in 2013 we migrated to Barcelona, where I was able to find work at an international school quite easily. In Barcelona I have been able to grow, create, and innovate in ways I never imagined. I have found a passion for teaching that I never knew I had inside of me, and it has been a journey discovering and developing it to its full potential. As of this year I was even able to share my experiences as I gave a course on Content and Language Integrated Learning to students in their last year of their college degree.
As for my blog, it is something that I have been doing informally for years. I have spoken with countless recent grads about how I came to Spain, what the process is like, and how they can do what I’ve done. I love sharing with people the best tips and places to go in every city I visit, and especially the ones I live in. Whether it’s the best place to grab tapas in Sevilla or how to get your difficult class to actually speak in English, I want to share it all. In addition to this, I have always been an avid writer. Putting words on a page soothes me like a warm cup of tea on a rainy day. So it seemed natural to bring all of the things that I love most and am most proud of to one place on my blog, in hopes of guiding people in the same situations that I found myself in so many years ago.
What do you like about your current job?
As far as my teaching job, I couldn’t be happier. I love (nearly) every aspect about it, but what I enjoy the most is that it challenges me on a daily basis, but allows me the room I need to be creative and bring my own life and style to my classes.
What do you hope to accomplish/what is your long-term career goal?
I think I would be doing an injustice if I were to put myself down to one or two specific goals. I love my job, and I love where I am, but a lot of my professional goals will be dictated by where I find myself geographically. Above anything else, I want to keep growing and reinventing myself. I want to not only find, but look for, new opportunities and new projects. I think its important to keep ourselves fresh and creative and motivated in whatever professional environment we find ourselves in. I would love to see myself working in higher education, but I am also curious to explore the blogging and social marketing atmosphere to see where I can take this personal project I’ve embarked on.
Any advice for current students?
Every time graduation weekend rolls around I always think about my own graduation day, seven years ago. I remember it for its pure blissfulness in so many ways; bedazzling my cap with my best friend, having popcorn and beers on the terrace with my family, going to every brunch and breakfast place we could find for three days, devouring hot cheesy bread at the farmers market on Sunday, and of course, the moment when we all threw off our caps and were declared, “graduates”. But perhaps above any of these memories, I remember my last walk up Bascom Hill as an undergrad with the most clarity. I was wearing my cap and gown over my favorite blue sundress, and my cheeks hurt from my indelible smile that day. But I will never forget a woman who approached me. She congratulated me and told me about her son who was graduating with a business degree. She proceeded to ask what my ribbon color stood for, what I had studied. I told her gleefully, “Spanish and International Studies,” and her response was to laugh as she asked, “and what are you going to with that degree?” I honestly don’t remember how I responded in that moment, but every once in awhile I’m reminded of her. I also wonder about her son, who very well could be making six figures in a successful business and have the life he always dreamed of. But I wonder if he knows what it feels like to meander through medieval streets right outside your door on a Sunday morning. To touch the cold stones of a cathedral that is four hundred years old. I wonder if he knows what its
like to eat fresh-caught shrimp with your hands and drink chilled white wine in a sunny Spanish plaza. Maybe he does, maybe he never will, or maybe he doesn’t care. My point is, if there is anything that I have learned in the years that I have spent in the University and outside of it, its that we have to find what drives us, lets us thrive, and above all, makes us happy. It sounds so simple and so cliché, but you wouldn’t believe how many people confuse a few extra zeroes on a paycheck with happiness. Your parents, your student loans, maybe even your friends will try to tell you that going to work or teach English abroad isn’t responsible, or even useful. But your family will still be here in a year, or even two, your student loans aren’t going anywhere, and if your friends are any good at all, won’t either. But you can.
Whenever people ask me why I like Spain so much, I always reference a quote that I feel still speaks to me in so many ways. “In the United States we live to work. Here, they work to live.” People here don’t care about making thirty thousand more euros a year. If they have enough for their summer holidays and weekly dinner with friends, its enough. My advice for anyone who is looking to make a career move, student or otherwise, is to remember the second part. Finding a job isn’t the difficult part. It’s living a life that fulfills you that’s not so easy.