Krishna with English students in Ecuador.

Krishna with some of his English students in Ecuador.

Ever worried that you’d be “wasting time” by teaching abroad, especially if you don’t plan on teaching forever? Erase that thought by reading Krishna’s account of teaching English in Ecuador in order to gain the skills he will need as a doctor!

Take it away, Krishna!

My name is Krishna Surasi and I am an ESL teacher in Ambato, Ecuador.

I graduated from college in May 2010, but the story of how I ended up teaching abroad begins in August 2008. As an undergraduate I wanted to go to medical school, but my major was Spanish literature so I opted to abandon my science courses for a semester to study abroad in Puebla, Mexico, during my junior year. Like everyone else who studies abroad in college, I had a great experience and the idea of living abroad again to study or work never really left my mind.

View of the active volcano, Tungurahua, from Krishna's classroom.

Active volcano, Tungurahua, seen from Krishna's classroom.

A year after returning from Mexico, I found myself as a second-semester senior applying to medical school to matriculate in the fall later that year. As much as I wanted to go to medical school right away, I couldn’t help but think back on my time abroad and how much I would have liked to have another experience living in a foreign country. Furthermore, as I learned more about the rigors of medical school and the urgency of everything that comes afterward, I came to the stark realization that once I start medical school I might never have the chance to spend a significant amount of time abroad again.

With an anxious desire to spend at least one more year outside of the U.S. before I started my medical career, I scoured the Internet for possible work programs. The reason I became interested in teaching programs in particular was twofold: first because I was a Spanish tutor in college and I quite enjoyed that job, and second because of a linguistics course I took my senior year that got me interested in the field of second language acquisition.

I looked to the Internet for help finding a good program that would provide me with some ESL teacher training and set me up with a job abroad. After sifting through a sea of sketchy programs, I stumbled upon the website of a non-profit organization based out of Boston called WorldTeach. I looked at the details of their volunteer programs in South America (the area in which I was most interested in teaching), and the dates for their Ecuador program worked out perfectly for the timeframe I was considering. After I was accepted to the program, I decided that I would put off starting my medical career for a year so I could take advantage of the opportunity to live abroad again before getting swept up in the life-consuming tornado that is medical school.

Jumping hemispheres at the center of the earth!

Jumping hemispheres at the center of the earth!

With all of my pre-med friends in a rush to start medical school immediately after graduating from college, I was questioned by more people than I care to count about why I wanted to teach English in Ecuador for a year if what I ultimately wanted to do was practice medicine in the United States. My answer to that questions usually begins by bringing up the most obvious advantage of living abroad: the opportunity to learn a foreign language.

Spanish continues to be an important language for the populations of many parts of the United States (my hometown of New York City being no exception) so it is not hard to understand why it would be incredibly helpful for a physician to be able to speak Spanish and communicate directly with a larger population of his patients.

Another skill to be gained from living abroad that I know will apply to a future career in medicine is perhaps less obvious, but just as important for communication as language. I am a strong believer in the idea that a doctor’s job is about more than giving orders; it is about helping people get better. Part of being able to do this is connecting with patients and instilling them with the confidence that you know what is right for them by first demonstrating that you understand their unique circumstances. An important way to win this kind of respect and confidence from strangers is to demonstrate that you know something about their culture or that you are at least willing to see the world from their perspective and learn about their culture. By teaching abroad in Ecuador I will obviously learn a lot about the Ecuadorian language and culture specifically, but the ability to be comfortable dealing a culture different from my own and to be open to learning about different ways of life will be more widely applicable to encounters with patients from any background.

Furthermore, working as a teacher I am presented with a wide variety of challenges that include issues of organization, motivation, public speaking, and management. By tackling these challenges I am learning new skills that will be as useful outside the classroom as they are inside.

Domes of a church in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Domes of a church in Cuenca, Ecuador.

My first semester teaching I had around fifty students in a school with no books or curricula. After planning out that semester, handling a few hundred pages of lecture slides in med school will seem underwhelming by comparison. Similarly, if I can explain something like the present perfect progressive to someone who isn’t a native English speaker in English, I am confident that I can explain something like diabetes to someone in his own language.

A common expression for students who do something for a year before matriculating to grad school is “taking a year off.” I have also encountered people who were incredulous that I was not worried about “wasting a year” working with WorldTeach when I could have gone straight to medical school after college. As far as I’m concerned, neither of these expressions holds any weight in a discussion about teaching abroad.

Like I said before, working as a teacher abroad is an investment. The skills you learn and the experiences you have abroad will not be left behind in your host country at the end of your stay; they stick with you and are transferable to your life when you return home regardless of your profession. Take my case for example: being an ESL teacher and a doctor might seem like completely different worlds, but as I have suggested in this piece, there is more overlap in the skill sets of a teacher and a physician than you might at first suspect.

Krishna enjoying a crab dinner with his host family!

Krishna enjoying a crab dinner with his host family!

In conclusion, my advice to anyone interested in traveling abroad to be a teacher is to step back, take a long look at the big picture, and seriously consider the opportunity.

It is easy for students coming straight out of college to get caught up in the rush to immediately matriculate into grad school or get a high-paying job, but I’m not sure that there is really a better time to live abroad than when you are fresh out of college with few obligations to attend to in your home country and a youthful eagerness to see what the rest of the world has to offer.

Thanks so much, Krishna! Indeed, the skills learned by teaching abroad are applicable to ANY career we choose to subsequently pursue. If you want to read more of Krishna’s exploits, check out his blog at Eisforecuador.blogspot.com. Readers, what questions or comments do you have for Krishna?

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Posted by Lillie

Lillie started TeachingTraveling.com in 2010 to share the infinite ways to combine education and world exploration. Lillie has been a Boston teacher since 2003, and chronicles her own travels at AroundTheWorldL.com.

8 Comments

  1. What a wonderful article, Krishna! Love the photo with the crab at dinner 🙂

    Reply

  2. “I had a great experience and the idea of living abroad again to study or work never really left my mind.” Isn’t that the truth? I appreciate the blurb about considering the big picture. There’s something about living in an entirely different culture long term that affects you for the “big picture,” causes you to value different things. Flexibility is learned quickly, too!

    Reply

  3. Teaching abroad in Spain has afforded me much more than speaking better Spanish (and picking up a husband in the process) – better communication skills, better organizational skills, an interest in child psychology and more cultural awareness. I never expected it to turn into a career for me!

    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

  4. Krishna,

    Sorry for such a delayed response (especially when juxtaposed against yours). I really appreciate your tips, and wish you the best of luck in all that you do.

    Travis

    Reply

  5. Great tips L…One of my biggest regrets after school was not taking the time to look at the big picture. I dove right into a job, and wish I had done other things first…

    Reply

  6. Interesting read… however, I was wondering how you would worked out the interviews with medical schools? I am considering doing a program similar to this in Spain next year, but my professors are telling me that the medical school interviews are pretty structured and it would be hard to schedule them if I were overseas. Thanks!

    Reply

    1. Hey Travis, your professors are completely right. The truth is that I really lucked out with the school I was teaching at and my interview schedule. The school I worked at in Ecuador was super flexible and they let me take two separate weeks off to do five interviews in total (n.b.: those two trips were expensive, so don’t forget that if money is an issue). Similarly, the schools I was invited to interview at scheduled dates within a week of each other, and given my circumstances living abroad (which was the focus of my personal statement), they were willing to push them up or down a few days so I wouldn’t have to spend more than a week in the States. Part of the reason I was interviewed at any medical schools to begin with was because they liked that I was teaching abroad, so it made sense that they would be willing to accommodate me within reasonable limits.

      But really my situation was less than ideal. What you should be looking to do is get into medical school as soon as you finish college then ask for a deferral. A lot of schools are willing to let students defer for a year if the student has a good enough reason. The idea that teaching abroad has anything to do with medicine is not obvious, however, so you must be ready to present a well thought out angle on the experience to make that connection clear to admissions committees.

      If you don’t get a deferral and you are going to teach at a place that is unlikely to be as flexible as my school in Ecuador, I also wouldn’t completely throw away the idea of holding off on med school applications until after you come back. There is a surprising number of students in my class that are coming from other careers later in life, and in my interactions with them they seem much more mature and aware of the privileged situation we are in to be studying medicine. To give you some perspective, there is a 36 year old woman in my class with 8 kids, so consider that if you ever start thinking that you don’t want to “waste time” before you start med school.

      Good luck Travis.

      -krishna

      Reply

  7. I love this, I spent a semester in tokyo last year, and will graduate soon and everyone is saying go straight to med school after wards but i cannot leave tokyo out of my ind, and i agree that a year teaching abroad will definitely help me in my interaction with patients, especially since I wish to work with universal global organizations on health issues. Thanks again and good luck!

    Reply

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