When I was in college, I had a poster above my bed with a bright yellow flower that said, “Bloom where you’re planted.”
I always found that flower reassuring, and throughout my career, I often thought about those simple words of advice. As I look back, there are times when I followed that advice quite well and at other times not so well.
As I perused the Peace Corps website and looked into becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, what caught my eye was a position for a Peace Corps Response Volunteer teaching English at a university in Mexico. This is where I could see myself blooming. Having lived in Texas for most of my adult life, I had had many Mexican students in my English classes where I volunteered my time. I thought it was going to be a perfect match.
As my husband and I walked each day from our apartment to the university, one of the things that immediately caught my attention was that Mexicans plant flowers everywhere. They plant them in their yards, in tin cans, in old flower pots, in milk cartons, wherever. Out of all those ordinary containers bloom beautiful, vibrant flowers, hardy cacti and brilliant green plants. “Bloom where you’re planted, “ I remember saying to myself one morning soon after being assigned to work at the Foreign Language Department at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Hidalgo (UAEH).
My counterparts in the Foreign Language Department oversee the teaching of English at all campuses of the UAEH, including the curriculum that the more than 200 English teachers use.
The English language learning needs of Hidalgo’s population are unique in that most of their graduates will never travel to the U.S. or other English-speaking countries; however, English will more than likely play an important role in their futures. Some will go to work for a Japanese, Chinese, or German company where English will be the lingua franca. In many of the science professions, staying current in their field will require they read the latest research articles nearly always published in English. With Mexico’s close proximity to the United States, English is everywhere, in the movies people watch, the music people listen to, the new words that the Mexican lexicon adopts, like internet, cool, clutch, and Facebook. Globalization may be a cliché, but for these students, knowing English allows them to play in a global world.
A few years ago, my counterparts, working with a British consultant, had initiated a new curriculum focused on the kind of English UAEH students will likely use. The curriculum pushes students to use the English they have learned over the many years they have studied English (rather than starting over each year with “This is a book.” and “What is your name?”). I was invited to attend site visits to observe meetings between the English language staff and their teacher and administrative colleagues at the various campuses. Reactions to the presentations told me that little change management had occurred to prepare teachers in how to use the new curriculum or to get their input about what works in the English language classroom from those who are there teaching every day.
Through all of this, I kept hearing the wise words of our Peace Corps staff during our training, “Above all else, be flexible!” they often told us. In some ways, my Peace Corps Response assignment did not turn out to be what I expected. Instead, what did happen is that the beautiful, colorful experience of living and working in Mexico allowed me to “bloom” exactly where I had been planted.