If you asked me six years ago what I was going to do once I graduated, I would never have answered, “Go to Prague and teach English to other university students”. Well, I just came back a week ago from Prague having taught intermediate level English to about 600 uni kids over two semesters through AIESEC. I’m still in a state of wonderment (and reverse culture shock) as I write this.
I heard about AIESEC from a friend who went on two internships teaching and doing graphic design in South Korea and Taiwan, respectively. His enthusiasm and passion for the different cultural experience in Taiwan was evident when I went to visit him in Taiwan last winter. He was our well versed guide, talking in the local dialect, Mandarin, and leading the way on the public city bikes throughout the city. He also befriended other AIESEC interns from abroad, so he never had a shortage of people to travel around with. Having seen firsthand what AIESEC helped him accomplish I decided to join and see where it would take me; three months later, I got accepted to teach English in Prague with other fellow UBC AIESECers, who I didn’t know prior to my journey, but eventually became my confidants.
Aside from the gruelling journey to get my long stay visa – I regret nothing from my AIESEC experience in Prague. In Vancouver, I lived my life more or less like a hermit, going out once in a blue moon to attend classes meetings, or parties. My humour was always a little bit off beat and dark, too dark for the sensibilities of North Americans, and so I felt alienated from most groups. However, in Prague, I found my social life flourishing and my humour resonating with the Czechs, including my students. In fact, I used my strange brand of humour to make my lessons memorable and easy to digest. Needless to say, I was gradually shedding my hermit tendencies and that hard shell I’d built up over the years.
I still remember my first day…I was a nervous wreck since I had a phobia of public speaking, but my students were so surprisingly earnest and attentive that I eased into my teaching style within two weeks. Basically, I taught thirteen 1.5 hour classes to about 600 students over two semesters; we were given a textbook to follow but we had free reign over our teaching methods – my idea of heaven. My lessons consisted of PowerPoint slides with grammar rules illustrated through funny memes followed by a speaking activity. Sometimes, I would even have a spare class to show a movie (i.e. Mean Girls) or teach them about North American culture/holidays (i.e. Halloween).
The weeks went by so fast and before I knew it we were reviewing in preparation for the exam. But before the review lesson, I opened the class with a Czech speech. In it, I joked (in Czech) that I had wanted to run over to the sink and puke my nervous guts out on the first day of class; at this, my students burst out laughing. I’d like to think that their laughter stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t that nervous wreck of a girl who wanted to hurl in the sink anymore. In short, this experience has helped me boost my confidence level and taught me to trust in my instincts.
Like my friend, I also met and befriended some locals from attending various AIESEC socials and a conference that took place at an old castle, yes you heard that last bit right. Naturally, I became very close with my AIESEC host, Jana, who not only picked me up from the airport, but travelled all the way to Vienna to get my visa for me! Whenever something didn’t go right, namely with the visa, we would make light of our situation; I still remember waiting in line at the immigration office and cracking jokes while gloomy onlookers gaped at us. Honestly, I don’t know how awry my experience would have went without her reliable and optimistic nature.
During exam period, I only held exams and office hours twice a week, so I got to travel to different European countries over the long weekend. In total, I visited nine countries, some independently, but mostly to meet up with fellow AIESECers. It was an ideal set up, since my friends got acquainted with the culture there before my arrival, I got a cheap/free stay coupled with a more local experience than if I had backpacked Europe as a tourist. Through this Euro trip, I learned a lot about different dialects/accents, and most interestingly, I got a tangible experience of different national characteristics, for example: the passionate Italians; the grounded Germans; and of course, the outwardly reserved but wickedly humourous and open (once you get to know them) Czechs.
Sure, you might be thinking I can probably get a similar experience through expat communities or meet ups, but in my experience, what sets the AIESEC experience apart is not only the unique professional opportunities, but more importantly, it’s what one AIESECer told me: it’s interacting and learning from people you assume are on the same page as you, people who want to branch out, broaden their perspective of the world; see through stereotypes; and ultimately lead through positive example, as cliché as that may sound.