I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook memories. Sometimes they drag up ugly photos from my braces-fille high school years, or pictures of people I was once close to but through time and space no longer see. Other times they remind me of amazing moments like rafting in the jungle or a date at the beach with a close friend in college. A few days ago, I got a ping from Facebook memories. It was a picture of my first day back in Quito. At that moment, I had flown all the way across the world from Mozambique, Africa, to the USA for a brief visit and down to Ecuador in just under a week. To say that I was feeling whiplash from these moves as I was about to embark on my journey as field staff is an understatement. I was so stressed from these changes that I shed an enormous amount of hair from my head for about the first three months I was back in Ecuador. This stress of moving was compounded by the hectic-ness (is that a word? No? Okay, just checking) of starting my new position right as orientation for an entirely new program was being inaugurated in-country. The new arrived participants exactly eight days after I started on the job. It was a wild ride for me, to say the least!
I went from this (left) to this (right) in about one week’s time.
Not only was I shifting from one continent to another, I was also shifting from one role to another. Ever since graduating from college in the spring of 2015, I had been volunteering (with the exception of my summer, student-type jobs). I had come to WorldTeach Ecuador as a year-long volunteer in September 2015 and thoroughly appreciated my time teaching at the Escuela Politecnica Nacional in Quito, dando clases for 20 hours per week and spending the rest of my time learning how to cook, hanging out with my roomies and Ecuadorian boyfriend, exploring the country, and in general seriously enjoying life and the frequent vacations. As a volunteer, I had wondered what Field Staff did all day. I mean, when they weren’t with us volunteers during conferences, what could they possibly be doing? I figured they must have quite a bit of free time when volunteers were doing well.
For some greater context, here is a sample day for me as a volunteer.
8:00: wake up, lounge in bed for a bit, ponder working out.
8:30 am: throw on workout clothes, head to the park, enjoy the sunshine and spend some time chilling in the grass and lusting after cute dogs after jogging.
9:30 am: arrive home, eat breakfast, lesson plan.
11:00 am: read a chapter or two of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Day dream about becoming a writer.
12:00 pm: experiment in the kitchen with a new dish, perhaps some delicious seco de pollo and rice that I learned how to make with my Ecuadorian boo.
2:00 pm: eat lunch, shower, dress
2:40 pm: make final edits to lesson plan.
3:15 pm: head to work.
4-8 pm: work
8:30 pm: arrive home, browse the internet, message my friends on facebook messenger, plan out my next trip
10:30 pm: go to sleep.
Meanwhile, as staff…
6:10 am: eyes flicker open in anticipation of my 6:15 alarm. Check phone and email to make sure I didn’t miss anything important happening after-hours.
6:15 am: dress, run to the gym, workout.
7:30 am: arrive home, take my doggie out for a potty break, cook breakfast for myself and my fiance, take a quick shower, get dressed, and pack a lunch. Wash dishes if there’s time.
8:30 am (at the latest) race out the door with my dog Gaby and hop on the Ecovia to the office.
9-5, 6, or 7 depending on the day : work.
6, 7, or 8: arrive home. Clean up dishes and cook lunch for the following day. Watch an episode or two of Six Feet Under while I work.
9 pm: Retire to bed with tv show
10 pm: Sleep
Boy, was I in for a surprise working on staff! I don’t think I ever anticipated being as busy as I have been in the past year that I’ve worked as an Assistant Field Director. I like to joke that I’m busier now than I was in college when I was working two jobs, holding two volunteer positions, taking fifteen units while writing a thesis, and teaching my own class on Latin American film. While program participants only really see the aspect of field staff that directly involves them–conferences, check-ins, and support in challenging times–supporting volunteers is only one part of the work that we do. While it is definitely the most important, it certainly doesn’t always take up the bulk of our time. Sometimes our volunteers are doing great and checking in on time and enjoying life. In those times, field staff cracks down on all the administrative work that seemingly never ends. From 30-page reports of conferences, to responding to infinite emails, to completing finance reports and other financial responsibilities, staff is never at a loss for tasks. We also maintain a running list of long-term projects we would like to accomplish, such as creating a host family database, screening potential new host families in all of our current sites, editing pre-departure materials, re-organizing our filing cabinets that have about 7 years’ worth of files, and so forth. Some of my favorite tasks are managing our WorldTeach Ecuador Facebook and Instagram pages (I might have created our instagram!). Seasonal tasks include preparing for and executing three conferences per cohort–currently this is 9 conferences per year, ranging from 2 to 28 days each–and executing site visits for each participant, which looks like a class observation and debrief with each volunteer, a meeting with their academic supervisor, and a host family visit. We also have meetings with our various partners throughout the year as needed.
No one day is the same for field staff. One morning we might check our physical mail box, grab a coffee with a volunteer who wanted to chat about teaching challenges, respond to check-ins, and meet a new host family. Another morning we might be accompanying a volunteer to a medical appointment and writing letters of recommendation for volunteers who recently finished their service. One afternoon we might be working together on a report for one of the Ecuadorian ministries soliciting specific information, and another we might be trouble-shooting a host family conflict. Some days are predominantly at our computers and in our emails, while other days we can be out of the office purchasing supplies, checking in on visa issues at the Ministry, meeting with our partners, getting petty cash from the bank for some upcoming purchases, and mailing documents to different sites. As WT Ecuador field staff likes to say, “It’s never boring” to be on staff.
I think the most challenging aspect of being staff is drawing a line between work and one’s personal life. Due to the often very inter-personal nature of our jobs (homesickness or physical ailments of volunteers; conflicts among volunteers and host families, other volunteers, or partners; challenges in the classroom; cultural shocks; traumatic events), it can be hard to “tune out” from our jobs in off hours. We often work beyond the standard 9-5, which can make defining that work/life balance aún más difficult. Additionally, as we are responsible for responding to emergencies 24/7, we have to always be prepared for crises. Though we have an emergency hotline that rotates among the three of us working locally, I have not turned my phone to “sleep mode” since starting this job, merely because if the emergency line doesn’t work for whatever reason (the battery dies unexpectedly, the staff members forgets it briefly or doesn’t hear it ring, etc), I need to be ready to respond to calls to my cellphone to support volunteers. Getting a call on the hotline or a late-night call on our cell phones causes staff to drop everything and our hearts to race a bit.
To be honest, I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was really getting into when I accepted this job just over a year ago. I did not realize how hard I would work or the ways in which volunteer well-being would dominate my thoughts and be the most important aspect of my job. I didn’t realize how much I would learn about administration and logistics–I’m happy to say that I helped plan and execute an almost three-week orientation for 38 volunteers in September, a feat that I could not have imagined at this time last year. I have learned how to ask for and provide feedback in kind and caring ways, and continue to work on those skills daily. I have completed the uncomfortable task of removing volunteers from host family situations that were no longer working out, and come out stronger for it. I have supported participants through some of the most difficult experiences they have had during their time in-country. I feel confident in delivering content for conferences, much of which I took joy in developing specifically for WT Ecuador participants. I have helped train and hire two new Assistant Field Directors, and changed our interview process through developing deliverables and scenario questions for candidates, to better help staff assess candidates. My Spanish has improved significantly through conversations with local administrators and host families. I created a Volunteer Council for WT Ecuador that is being piloted locally with the hope of eventually expanding to other programs. I created a WorldTeach Ecuador bi-weekly newsletter that is compiled by myself and my colleague and friend Devin. I have worked with three different programs: the Fellowship first, then the Summer Program, and now the Year-Long Volunteer Program, all of which I will have seen through to their respective ends in less than one year. I am so grateful that WorldTeach as an organization allows space for field staff to be creative, and to contribute new ideas and practices in the hopes of making the experience the best it can possibly be for all involved. I love that I can take initiative to improve WT Ecuador from the ground, something that I think is very unique and special about my organization.
This isn’t to say I haven’t failed at all. Oh, how I’ve failed. I learned the importance of carefully and caringly crafting emails so as not to sound condescending or rude. I learned how difficult it is to create financial reports, and how many errors that the finance office catches for me (even after doing these for three-four months, I’m still far from perfect, and very grateful for the patience of the finance office!). I learned to never issue host family payments at the beginning of the month, because we can’t necessarily get that money back if something happens. I have learned (and am still learning) the importance of proper filing, both digitally and physically, in order to keep accurate and organized records of everything we do. I have learned that I can sometimes be too pushy, and that while I should generally express my thoughts, I need to acknowledge that other team members’ ideas and opinions are also important and sometimes better than my own. I am constantly striving to admit my weaknesses and improve upon them in order to be the best teammate and staff member that I can be.
Considering how much I have learned in just one year as field staff with WorldTeach Ecuador, I am excited to see how much more I can grow and learn this upcoming year. If this past year is any indication, I’m in for an awesome adventure.
*Shoutout to WorldTeach for not only giving me an incredible experience as a volunteer, but also an amazing one as field staff. I appreciate our organization so much!*
**This is a friendly reminder that all content on this blog is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of WorldTeach.**