Where Are They Now? API Alumni Profile of Emily Sweeney

We at API feel very fortunate to be able to touch so many lives through our international programs, but often we find ourselves wondering – where are they now? In this edition of the API alumni profile series, we’ll be speaking with former API Teach in Colombia participant and current Study Abroad Advisor, Emily Sweeney, about her experiences abroad with API (and all the good things that have happened since!).

Emily next to a mural in Jardin, Colombia

Emily next to a mural in Jardin, Colombia

(API) Before you taught in Colombia through API, you had been in the ‘working world’ of study abroad for several years. What motivated you to step away from that and make such a dramatic career change?

(ES) Ever since studying abroad in college, I have had study abroad on the brain. While at Boston University, I studied abroad in South Africa through another program provider, The American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS). After graduation, I worked in Germany as an Au Pair and then returned home to embark on what I thought would be a career in Media Planning/Advertising. I worked as an Assistant Media Planner in NYC for one year, but after 6 months I realized it was not for me. While somewhat glamorous and fun, it was a lot of long days and everyone around me in the industry didn’t have much of what I would call a good work/life balance.

So I did some soul searching and thought back to when I was happiest and it turned out to be when I was studying abroad. At that time however, I had no idea that you could have a “career” in study abroad or that it was a field in and of itself. I just knew of AIFS so I checked their website every day for 5 months hoping a job would be posted so that I could apply. Finally a few were posted, I applied and the rest is history!

It was at AIFS that I first learned that international education was a legit field that you could have a career in – a dream come true for me! Over the next 4 years, I learned as much as I could as the Admissions Officer for their Italy Programs. I attended conferences, developed wonderful relationships with colleagues here in the U.S. and abroad as well as completed master’s degree in International Education through Drexel University.

In 2013, I was asked to become the Regional Director for the Mid-Atlantic States at AIFS. In that position, I was traveling around to colleges and universities meeting with study abroad administrators and promoting study abroad to students. As a road warrior, I had a lot of time on my hands driving from school to school so I started thinking a lot about my life, what direction it was going in and of course, my dreams. In the back of my head I had always toyed with the idea of maybe teaching abroad, but I loved my job and my coworkers who had become like family to me. Nevertheless, I continued having this nagging thought in my head that for the past 5 years I had been telling students to challenge themselves, take a risk and study abroad, but yet I myself had not taken a risk and had an adventure abroad since my time in Germany.

Then one day, I received an email about teaching English in Colombia and it sounded interesting so I started researching it. A few days later, I applied, was accepted shortly thereafter, and was soon putting in my resignation (which I think came as a big surprise to many of my coworkers). It was a difficult decision because I loved working there, but never once have I questioned it. I am so grateful for the opportunities I had at AIFS, but deciding to pick up my life and move to Colombia on a whim was one of the best decision I have ever made.

Metrocable in Medellin

Metrocable in Medellin

(API) Did you have any preconceived ideas about what life in Colombia would be like? (How) did spending such a long period there change those ideas?

(ES) In answering this question, two things come to mind.

1) I thought I would feel like an outsider and people might be rude to me. While I frequently felt like an outsider, especially in the beginning simply because I looked different than everyone else, 98% of the time people were extraordinarily kind and welcoming. Paisas (people from Antioqueño) are known for being the friendliest and Colombians in general are naturally curious about foreigners because it is a very homogenous country. However, after living there for almost 2 years I felt like I had adopted the city as a second home.

2) I thought Medellin would be much less developed than it is – it’s truly a vibrant, innovative city full of things to see and do. I was also surprised that Medellin is ahead of many U.S. cities in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to getting around.

Buses are very popular, run frequently and go just about everywhere. You can hop on and hop off wherever you want. Cabs are super cheap and the drivers are delightfully friendly. There are bike paths and bikes readily available to rent throughout the city. Two times a week and on holidays they close a few highways around the city for “Ciclovia” which allows bikers, roller bladers, walkers and runners to enjoy the city with traffic. Along the routes are food and truck vendors, stations where you can have your bike fixed or buy new parts and of course police officers for safety. It is a wonderful way to bring the city together while promoting a healthy lifestyle!

Medellin also has the cleanest public transportation system I have ever been on in my life! I always joked that I wouldn’t mind eating off of the ground in the metro because it is that clean. There is a rule that you are not allowed to eat or drink on the metro or metrocable, which is the cable car up the mountains that go to various neighborhoods. There are also workers that are constantly cleaning at each station. Paisas (people from Antioqueño) take pride in the metro system there and for that reason they will enforce this rule amongst themselves. Not even water is allowed, I learned that the hard way! One time, I was drinking water out of a water bottle at a metro station which I thought would be acceptable and an older lady was frowning at me as I walked by her. She tapped me on the shoulder and told me in Spanish that I should not be drinking water even at the station. I was pretty surprised but from that day forward, I respected the rule.

(API) What were some of the most rewarding aspects of teaching in Colombia? The most challenging?

(ES) The most rewarding aspect of teaching in Colombia was definitely the students. All of the students I had were excited about learning English. For most of them, I was the first foreign person they had ever met so I did my best to be a good representative. The majority had been learning English their entire life, but never got past the verb “to be” so they could not say much more than, “how are you?” and respond with “fine, thanks!”.  Watching them make progress each day was very exciting and fulfilling for me as a teacher. I loved celebrating all of their successes no matter how small.

The most challenging part of teaching in Colombia for me was that we had no curriculum, no textbook and no materials to work from. This was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because it gave us teachers a tremendous amount of freedom!  I had a blast coming up with fun, engaging lesson plans that included interactive games and activities. One time I put together an awesome photo scavenger hunt for my students around campus to teach them how to give directions in English. It was a big hit with the students!

The downside to having no materials and no curriculum was that we had to make it all up as we went along. Sometimes this was stressful because I had never taught before so I was unsure if I was teaching at an appropriate pace or teaching things in the right order. It took a lot of research on our part. In the end though, I am grateful for that opportunity because I think it taught me to be a creative and resourceful teacher.

(API) How has this experience influenced the direction of your career?

(ES) Teaching in Colombia was another experience in my life that forced me to step outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself, my thoughts, my preconceptions, my way of thinking and my outlook on life. I hope to continue to challenge myself throughout my career and take risks. Now I am back in the US, back in study abroad working at Drexel University as a Study Abroad Advisor which I am excited about! Being on a university campus, there is always something going on and I am constantly inspired by the Drexel students. There are definitely bright minds with big hearts coming up in the world! I also get to continue to practice my Spanish with our exchange partners abroad and sometimes with exchange students too.

(API) Why should someone consider participating in this program?

(ES) Colombia has so much to offer, teaching will change your life and the whole experience will no doubt make you a better person. Teaching is by far the most rewarding and challenging job I have ever had. The students will adore you and for many of them, having the opportunity to learn English can mean a better job, higher salary and better prospects for their future.  You will quickly realize how big of an impact you are having on their lives.

There are lots of holidays in Colombia which allows for plenty of time to see the beauty of the country. Traveling around Colombia is very easy, safe and inexpensive! I was fortunate to have traveled to so many different places while I was living there. Some of my favorite places were Jardin, Parque Tayrona, Bahia Solano, Sapzurro and Salento.

As far as other reasons to consider participating in this program, the most important thing Colombia taught me was patience, something that I know I was definitely lacking previously. We live in a world now where instant gratification is the norm in many countries. Life in Colombia however, is a lot slower paced than most Western countries and in general, things do not get done as efficiently as most people in the US would expect. Communication, especially in workplaces, can oftentimes be roundabout and people are overall pretty relaxed about most things (except eating or drinking on the metro!).

Most days in Colombia, things do not go as planned. That’s the norm and people accept it. Instead of getting upset or frustrated, they simply go with the flow. I recall the first time I was on a bus that broke down and being completely shocked that not one person complained, everyone filed off the bus, wished the conductor bendiciones/blessings and made new friends while waiting for the next one to come along. It was remarkable and has had a profound impact on how I react now when things do not go as planned. Living and working in Colombia taught me to make the best of any situation and go with flow.

Emily and Luis on top of El Penol in Guatape, Colombia

Emily and Luis on top of El Penol in Guatape, Colombia

(API) Living in Colombia has not only had a positive impact on your professional life, but in your personal life as well. Can you share your major life news with our readers?

(ES) Yes, Colombia changed my life in many ways! I did not go to Colombia looking for love, but as they say, it happens when you least expect it. Within my first few weeks in Medellin, I became friends with an amazing Colombian, Luis, who ended up stealing my heart. We are engaged, he is moving to the U.S. and we are getting married in January 2016! Thank you API! 🙂 

API’s Teach in Colombia program is accepting applications for our spring intake – apply by November 10 to secure your spot today!

Emily Sweeney participated on API’s Teach in Colombia program in 2014. Prior to teaching abroad, Emily worked in the study abroad field for 5 years, and she now serves as a Study Abroad Advisor at her alma mater, Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA.


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