By Tjasa Zupanc, Slovenia
One year of life can be very normal, sometimes even boring if nothing special happens. But I can’t say that for the last year of my life. I can’t use words normal, usual, nothing special, ok…Everything was different, new, exciting and most of all challenging. I’m talking about my life in Richmond Vale Academy (RVA), another kind of school that seeks for those who want to make our planet more equal and those who care about our nature and the place we live in. I was a part of Ecuador team for one year and before we went to the project in Ecuador where we were working with Humana People to People, a humanitarian organization established in Africa, Latin America and Asia, we were living very interesting but different life at RVA.
But everything started much earlier, before I even heard about the school. It started inside of me when different feelings started to grow. Feelings which pushed me to do something that I was dreaming about for a long time. I always wanted to meet new people, see new places and at the same time learn new things and do something that is a bit challenging. I always found too many reasons (excuses) why not to go; now I know that simply it wasn’t the right time. But when the right time came I knew it immediately, I felt it. Now I can say that decision to go and leave my home, family and friends, join the program at RVA and live an unusual life for one year was the best decision in my life…for now.
So many things happened in one year and it’s not possible to talk about all of them. Sometimes I feel that I wouldn’t experience all this in 5 years of my “normal” life. And I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t meet so many amazing people and I wouldn’t be faced with so many “I can’t do it!” in whole my life if I wouldn’t leave my bobble which “protected” me from my fears. That’s why I want to talk a little bit more about the challenges that I had to deal with on the way and the things that made me stronger as a person and changed me forever.
The first thing that is not very usual is the lifestyle or every-day life that students and teachers have at RVA. It depend how big are the teams but I think that the average number of people at RVA is around 40. We all work and live together 24/7. And this is the first challenge that people have to be ready for. For some of them this kind of life is not an option because it means that there is a lot of compromising, many common things, lot of common work that has to be done if we want to have good working and living conditions. Many people at the same place also mean numbers of amazing ideas, different opinions and mostly very special personalities. All these make every-day life very interesting, most of the time in a very good way. Of course conflicts are also one part of a life in a place like this but with open communication and honest relationships most of them are solved quite fast and easy. I’m very extrovert person, I like people and I like common life, that’s why for me this was just a different way of living, not like a big challenge. But for sure this part of the story had a big impact on my life…in the moment and also for the future. I learned a lot about myself, my personality, my advantages and also disadvantages. I learned to speak out laud, to say my opinion about anything. I think I improved my communication skills and this is one thing that I’m very proud of. I’m trying to think before I act or say something that can make some people mad or sad. Even conflicts are not that big deal because I’m trying to change them into a conversation and not into an arguing. Of course I have a bad days also but most of the time I know how to manage myself when they come. And all this is very useful and important for me and my life…I’m sure it can make my future life nicer and sometimes easier.
The biggest challenge for me were definitely the languages. Both, English and Spanish. Before I came to RVA I didn’t use English a lot. There was no need to do so. We had English in school and I was surrounded with it all the time on TV but I didn’t use it for communication. I was never satisfied with my level of it and I was never confident using it. That was one of the reasons why I chose a program that is not in my country (Slovenia) and I also knew that there won’t be anyone from my country so I will be forced to speak English, right or wrong. The environment helped me a lot because RVA is a very international place where you can meet people from all over the world, people who speaks so many different languages but official one at school is English. In the beginning I was a bit lost and it was a bit hard because I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted to, I couldn’t find the right words. But when the time passed I was getting used to the language and when I started to dream in English I knew that I overcome the challenge. Of course there is still a lot to do to push my English to another level but for now I think I improved a lot in one year. I feel confident when I speak English and I know that I can communicate with anyone about anything. That was one of my goals which will help me to enjoy and experience my life in the future to the fullest.
But Spanish was totally different situation. Of course I knew that I will have to learn it because I joined the team that was supposed to go to the project in Ecuador to work and live with people in the communities. But when I enrolled myself I didn’t think much about this. At the beginning I was focusing on English so I almost forgot about even bigger challenge, Spanish. This language was new for me. I didn’t have any basis so I had to start from the beginning. I put Spanish class in my schedule but every-day life and a pressure from people made things a bit harder that I was expecting. I spent 6 months at RVA before we went to Latin America so I learned some basic things but I still couldn’t speak much. I knew that my grammar improved a lot but it doesn’t help if you don’t practice talking as much as possible. The time was passing quickly and the day came. We left the school and next day I was surrounded with Spanish speaking people everywhere. That was a shock for me and my confidence. I felt totally dependent on others and this is the feeling that I don’t want in my life. I need freedom in many areas of my life and communication is one of them and this problem made me feel handicapped and unhappy.
I came to the point when I was thinking about giving up because I didn’t see the point of being in Latin America if I can’t give my best to the people and if I feel useless most of the time. But when I was at the lowest point they were there, Paula, Jose and Elvis, my teammates. And that’s the nicest part of having a great team because you can always find a person who will know when is the right time to say something, anything, just to make you feel better and maybe prevent you to make a decision that you would regret later. That was very important part of this period of time because it made me think about why I went to RVA at the first place. And it was because I wanted something different in my life, something that will make my life more exciting and valuable. It’s kind of easy to overcome the challenges if you know what are the positive sides of it at the end. I decided to continue the way and forced myself a bit more because that is the only way to achieve my goals and to feel free. And things actually started to move in right direction, slowly but they did.
Latin America, more specifically Ecuador, was a period when I was confronted with numbers of challenges. When we arrived to the project my Spanish was still at the beginning and that put more pressure on me because we were there to teach people different things related to farming and agriculture, nutrition and English. So communication with the families was the main thing of our daily life. First two months I was a bit lost but lucky at the same time. Yes, my Spanish was very, very bad but the people were amazing. They made me feel so comfortable that I didn’t worry about the language anymore. They were very patient and they didn’t focus on the things that I said wrong but on the ones that were right. However, there were some☺. And after I found a thing that I felt I’m good at I was feeling much better. I started to teach English. Even thou I’ve never taught anything before I really wanted to be good and efficient doing it. One year ago I didn’t even think that this is possible but I did it, I overcome another challenge that came on my way. I was teaching English to Spanish speaking teenagers. Now it sounds quite normal but at that moment when I had to do it was very stressful.
Sometimes I also had to except some things that I didn’t like the most and they weren’t “my kind of things”. One of them was the project that we were working on in Ecuador. We didn’t have a lot of choices when they (Humana People to People) told us that we have to go to the community in La Victoria. They send us there because the help was needed there the most. We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare our self for very specific project which was about animals (chickens and pigs) and organic gardens but we had to go with the flow and try to do the best we can. We were teaching people about things that we didn’t know much about before we came to the project. We were learning all the time and we gave the people as much as possible. Even if we‘re not professionals in this area people were satisfied and happy in the end because they saw that we put all our energy and strength into the project and we did everything that we could to make the project successful one.
And in the end this was a beneficial and powerful experience for all of us. Families got animals, organic gardens and lots of useful information about many things that they can use in their lives and we realized that anything can come on the way and when it happen you just have to find a solution and make the best out of it.
All these different kind of situations make people stronger and more confident about themself. For sure it helped me realize that I’m capable to do so much more that I was thinking. I moved my limits higher and I want to keep pushing myself to be better at the things that I’m already good at and to do things that I’m afraid of or maybe I’m too sure that I can’t handle it. When I’m faced with the challenge the first thing is panic and feeling of discomfort, but when I put all my energy to achieve the best results that I can, the feeling is indescribable. Happiness, joy, satisfaction, pride and so much more. That’s what makes life more interesting and exciting. And when you see that people learned something from you and that they are grateful for everything that you shared with them that gives the life the special meaning and put value to life.
And now if I answer the question. Was the last year of my life the best time of my life? I believe that without so many challenges I wouldn’t be that sure about my answer. But after overcoming so many difficulties, living in different and the most beautiful parts of the world, meeting lots of amazing people, doing things that I’ve never done before, learning about new things and also about me, my answer is very simple. YES!
Tjasa Zupanc, Development Instructor