November 25, 2015
A World Away
Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant winner makes her mark in Colombia
Laura Blasena wakes up at 5:30 every Monday morning to catch an early bus that takes her from the concrete jungle of Bogotá, Colombia to a peaceful rural mountainside elementary school, Aguadulce, about 45 minutes away.
She spends the day teaching English to K-5 students, connecting with them through games and other engaging learning activities. They’re used to spending their time in the classroom writing down what a classmate reads out loud from a textbook, so the more interactive approach is a welcome change.
After a long work day, Blasena catches a crowded bus for the treacherous ride back to Bogotá along winding, narrow mountain roads. It’s a world away from her hometown of Mahtomedi, Minnesota, but it’s just another day in the life for the winner of a grant from the highly competitive Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
Blasena graduated in May with a double major in elementary education and Spanish, making her a perfect fit for the teaching program. She’s spending the academic year as a teaching assistant at the Universidad Cooperativa de Colombia in Bogotá.
She provides assistance for English as a Second Language classes, mainly conducted at night and on the weekends. As the only assistant in her university this year, she has been busy, helping with learning activities in 28 different classes. English is the most popular foreign language taught in Colombia, she said.
When she’s not in the classroom or volunteering, she runs English discussion groups and conversation clubs.
“Part of the program gives me the opportunity to learn, but the other part is about what I can give back to the community,” she said.
As part of her Fulbright grant application, she proposed a community outreach program to teach English to children, which is what led to her weekly volunteer work at Aguadulce through the InterChange Colombia nonprofit organization. Although the students weren’t used to her teaching style at first, they’ve become comfortable with it in the past few weeks.
“Now they understand what to expect when I’m there, and they feel more comfortable engaging in activities and trying to speak in English,” Blasena said. “They aren’t afraid to receive feedback about mistakes and they aren’t afraid to correct me if I make a mistake talking about something in Spanish.”
She has enjoyed building meaningful relationships with her students.
“The students ride the bus back part of the way to Bogotá with me, and as we get to each stop they always want to tell me about where they live, their families, and what their houses are like. They actually really enjoy discussing profound topics and talking about what they want to do when they get older.
“It’s definitely the highlight of my week!” Blasena said.