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Colombia: Heart for Change

An account of my six months of "volunteaching" at SENA in Cartagena through the Heart for Change program.

sunny 34 °C

Heart for Change

After eight awesome months of travel, including nearly five in Colombia I decided to get useful again.

The Heart for Change program with Volunteers Colombia appealed, because it is government affiliated and would give me insight into the country that visitors don't usually get. Plus, I'd be working with the nation's most revered educational organisation, SENA.


SENA is a public technical institute that provides free education for people living in stratus 1-3 (Colombia has a 6 tier social class system that you can understand here: here)

Their courses are concise with a view to putting people to work in short spaces of time.

There is no fat in SENA courses, students learn only what they need in order to work effectively. The syllabus are often developed in conjunction with industry.

In other words, once you do a SENA course, you are almost guaranteed a job, and enterprises are guaranteed skill relevancy with their SENA graduate recruits. It's definitely a smart path to win-win.

SENA has role specific courses for nearly all industries; from hotel maids to network security engineers, fighter jet maintenance crew and everything in between.

Having been on the road, and sharing my insights here, Volunteers Colombia suggested I join the new tourism program in Cartagena.

The program aims to uplift the level of English in the city's hotels, bars, restaurants and tourist guides through both classroom based learning, and with students as they work.

After years of being tainted with the danger tag Colombia is finally becoming the attractive tourist destination that it deserves. Understandably, there hasn't really been an impetus for Colombians working in tourism to learn English until recently. Though now, it is a high priority for local enterprise in Cartagena as word is spreading and tourism is on a rapid rise.

Cartagena is easily one of the most beautiful cities I have visited. Plus it is culturally vibrant and distinctly Caribbean in every way. It was an easy decision to accept.

Bilingual Colombia


Graduating with decent grades in a new language is now a requirement for most tertiary level courses in the country. English and German are the top two.

Many engineering graduates go to Germany to work with the bigger companies, and friends here told me about the many scholarships offered by German universities to Colombians.

Volunteers Colombia employs "volunteachers" numbering around 360 native English speakers to join SENA and co-teach with local instructors.
Volunteachers are paid a stipend of 1.5 million pesos, which covers rent, food and possibly more depending on your city. Cartagena is very expensive so that stipend didn't cover much more than rent and food for me.

This progran benefits the students in a myriad of ways - both linguistically and culturally, and (in theory) benefits the local co-teachers who we work with.

This is reportedly the biggest bilingual program of it's kind in Latin America.

It is also worth noting that the Colombian government has put education as it's top priority, reportedly allocating more funding than military for the first time in many decades.
Exciting times for the country.


The interview process was pretty simple; a Skype chat with one of the senior teachers. It was definitely an encouraging conversation and I was really excited about joining!

The screening process that follows is pretty rigid though.

We needed to get police background and medical checks, references, etc.
The contract is a whopping 36 pages! With a lot if-and-but clauses that were perturbing.
I bought the most comprehensive insurance plan I could find.



Before dispersing out to our cities, the 90 or so new volunteers from all over the world (USA, Canada, Jamaica, Kenya, Croatia, Germany, Russia, UK and of course AUSTRALIA just to name a few) convened in Bogotà for a two week induction, at a particularly flash hotel.

All courses, seminars and admin were conducted on site, so we didn't have to leave.... everything was taken care of.

We got to know about Colombian culture, suitable learning strategies aligned to cultural values, do's and don'ts, safety, Colombia's rich musical landscape, and the very distinct differences between regions.

It was also interesting to learn about the different types of students who attend SENA, including people who are repatriated back to mainstream society.

Visas are required to work here, (we got a special TP1 visa for volunteers). Volunteers Colombia took care process of which was relatively painless and also arranged our ID cards (cedulas) and health coverage.

During the induction we were visited by many big wigs, who gave us rousing speeches about positive change in Colombia and the role of language and education in this emergence.

Colombia is reportedly the fastest growing economy in Latin America, and is blessed as the most biodiverse country on Earth.

Colombians are grafters, and seize opportunities. They are also known for overcoming staggering adversity.
Some situations are known internationally... and some you only learn about after living here for a while.


In my home city, Melbourne Colombians represent a significant portion of our 125,000 international students. The only significant group out of all of the Americas. Go Colombia!

Bonding in da Club

The volunteers group also managed to get some clubbing in before jetting off to our cities....

In Chapinero, Teatron is home to one of the biggest clubs in the region, with 13 big rooms playing every kind of music you can imagine.
It's certainly chaos, in some kind of organised way... you can roam between rooms dedicated to Reggaeton, Salsa, House, Rock, Techno, etc, etc.

Upon entry you are given a cup as part of your fee. That cup entitles you to as many drinks as you can handle... but don't lose your cup... you don't get replacements.

Arrival Cartagena

My team of 15 and I flew to Cartagena mid June poised with wonder.

The program gave us one month free at Hotel Bellavista; right on the beach in Marbella.
It was a little rough around the edges, and living without air conditioning in 80+% humidity was a little trying.

I left after only 10 days, after a cat fell through the skylight in my ceiling, in the middle of the night...landing on me as I was asleep, and then running and screeching in circles at a million miles an hour - until I managed to open my door and 'escort' it out.

I found a nice room in historic Getsemani, in the home of a really lovely couple from Boyaca.
Getsemani is a really nice, and up-and-coming area of the city with a vibrant culture.

In Getsemani folks sit outside their houses with the doors open and (giant) stereos blasting Salsa and Vallenato from their lounge rooms.

On Sundays our street was closed to traffic as the local baseball league used it for matches.
I stayed there for a month and then moved to the serenity of neighbouring barrio, Manga.

English Immersion in Guasca


After a couple of months in the classroom, an opportunity came up to assist with an English Immersion program in Guasca, near Bogotà.
We had a small volunteers team of four spanning Germany, Australia, USA and the UK. A nice mix of backgrounds and accents for the program to utilise.

The idea was to take selected SENA instructors to a gorgeous hotel in a remote location for two weeks, where they could only speak/work English, with a view to devising English immersion programs for students across the country.


During this time we ran/participated in many activities and seminars around teaching practice, enabling SENA's education vision, and ultimately devising plans for widespread immersion programs for students to attend.

This was an incredibly exciting two weeks, and actually my favourite part of being in Colombia because it was like a cultural immersion for me.
I shared a room with two other instructors - from Cali and Pereira. We talked a lot in off time and learned a lot from eachother.
I contributed with workshops on interview techniques and CV preparation, and also cultural sessions about Australia.

The enthusiasm, drive and good humour behind the people in the program was incredible. We had so much fun!

We played many games, ran dance competitions, movie nights, etc

The volunteers got to practice our spanish, because we had to translate any of the participants' requests for hotel staff to spanish.
The participants were completely locked in to English!

Ultimately the group produced a very impressive looking proposal for a country wide English immersion program that could be implemented across the country.

I made a video of the experience here:

Tour Guide Project: Documentary


As part of our contract with Volunteers Colombia, we had to dedicate a portion of our week to a specific project.

I chose to work with the tourist guides studying at SENA, and do something that would improve their revenue earning potential.

When we first met as a group I asked them what their priorities were in terms of learning.
The responses were mostly around how to explain history, dates, materials, events, verbs in past tense, etc.

I thought that a nice goal would be to get each of them to script an English tour of one particular site, and video it as a useful tangible outcome.
We decided that we could use the videos as promotion of themselves and/or businesses if I put them on Youtube.

We then had a goal - produce a video tour of Cartagena's main sites in English, and selected 10 of Cartagena's prime sites and formed small teams dedicated to each site. I then gave them an outline for a "script" for their videos.

They had to explain dates, genesis/impetus for construction, materials, events, etc... and it's uses (then and now).

From September through 'till the end of November we had a great time writing and refining the scripts as a team.
The tour guides helped each other with the details and phrasing in such an inspiring and heartening way. It really was amazing to be part of the tour guide group. As we worked together I learned so much about Cartagena's history and also about the inner workings of tourism here.

Finally we had scripts ready at the end of November, and during the first two weeks of December we went out and filmed our Cartagena Tours in English video set.

The result is 10 videos on Youtube (see below), that my students can now use for promotion, training of new recruits, and also as tangible outcome of our hard work.

Here are some of them:

You can find a complete playlist of all of our videos here: Video Documentary: Cartagena Tours in English

After we launched our videos online, we celebrated!!
My students treated me to a chiva bus party, night tour of Cartagena and an awesome dinner and drinks in historic Getsemani.


Birthday Surprise


There were a lot of nice unexpected surprises for my birthday.
When i arrived to class on the day, my students had a cake, balloons, streamers, coca-cola, etc ready for an awesome surprise!!


I was also invited to the restaurant where many of my students work, for a delicious lunch and was presented with a cake.
This is tradition in Colombia that I'm sure teachers back in Oz would appreciate.

Co-teaching at SENA Cartagena

In terms of classroom teaching there were amazing highs, rewarding tangible exhibitions of progress and I was greeted with the most warm, embracing arms by the students who were really motivated to learn..

Beyond the project, and immersion program I was co-teaching classes 7am-11am, Monday to Friday in Casa de Marqués; a gorgeous building with very interesting/controversial history (see the video from my project) .

In the classroom I saw amazing camaraderie, learnt so much about Colombia's rich culture, idioms, food, etc, etc.
I also learned a lot from my co-teacher who is a very learned individual and incredible instructor, with solid techniques and a great demeanour for teaching.

Co-teaching Dynamics

Occasionally I saw flashes of misogyny, xenophobia, machismo, prohibitively competitive attitudes, and oddly dismissive views of phrasing and accents that were not akin to neutral "Hollywood"... not from students mind you.... rather by the local instructors.

Though the idea of co-teaching and bringing in foreigners to SENA is awesome - it isn't necessarily appreciated or bought into by university educated instructors, who conquer huge odds to get into their roles there.
It really felt like the volunteers were somewhat of an annoying imposition, and ultiamtely there were problems.

One class when covering dates I explained that when phrasing years, we normally combine the first two numbers then second two. (before 2000)
(example 1959 = "nineteen / fifty nine")

My co-teacher interrupted and exclaimed that really "wasn't correct", and that in fact you should say the complete number.
"No!" He interjected "The year 1959 is 'one thousand nine hundred and fifty nine'"

I inquired where he had heard that before....
He responded "I was in one of the expensive hotels, and heard a rich man say his date of birth using the complete number, so it must be correct."

He then told the class that they could humour me, but "one thousand nine hundred and fifty nine" was actually the preferred way to phrase years.

Throughout the semester hearing jarring errors in pronunciation or phrasing being recited and rewarded with a proud smiling nod was... well...y'know.

Any attempts to suggest alternatives to his learned vocabulary (he insisted that "bin" was not actually a word and that rubbish goes in a "basket") were thwarted.

Occasionally he would half mockingly ask in front of the class "and how do you say it in Australia?", as if we speak some kind of very distinct localised dialect that students wouldn't benefit from.
Ultimately I just let him teach whatever he liked, assisted with a smile and focused on my project.

I found myself thinking of the 4000+ Colombian students living and studying in Melbourne, learning and yearning to say "G'day" properly, and pondered that more good would have been done running free classes in Fed Square.... and it would have cost a pretty penny less than the thousands of buckaroos shelled out on this journey.

I wasn't the only fella sobbing in to my arepas.

Regarding a fellow volunteacher from Ghana, I heard about one of the local instructors tell her class that Ghanian English is not "proper", and if they couldn't understand him to consult one of the Colombian instructors, or American volunteers.

The poor bloke was mortified...but to his credit kept smiling in the class and saved the tears for later.

At this point morale within the volunteer's group went in to freefall.

Utilisation of Diversity

Between the volunteers team we cover native English accents from around the world and different parts of the US, plus Russia and Germany.

The point of the program was to expose students to different accents and localised phrasing of different countries; but the idea wasn't supported at centre level and the volunteers were hamstrung, reduced to teaching assistants.

Our team mix was in line with the aspirations and idea of this program, however this couldn't translate to reality as localised staff really were not invested in the idea, and I dare say averse to it.
And who can blame them....

Slogging out language and teaching degrees against the odds in a country finding it's feet after tough times, only to have starry eyed first worlders come in with imposed equal footing, and correct them - is probably a hard pill to swallow.

After experiencing the teachers' equivalent of a cock-block time after time, I put the lofty aspirations of the co-teaching program down to a huge chasm between talking the walk, and actually walking it.

In an effort to try to align the volunteers and SENA staff several "team building" days were organised and moderated by psychologists at the behest of both Volunteers Colombia and SENA. Though, it would take more than a few trust exercises to resolve the issue.

And yet comedically, despite everything, the biligualism program in Cartagena won an award for best language program in the country.

You might wonder why I didn't quit.....
The classes were ultimately great fun, and I actually learned a great deal about effective teaching and class management from my co-teacher, despite the dynamics. I was also determined to finish my video project with the tour guides.

I socialised with my students, and was often invited to their places of work to try the food, have cocktails etc.
The immersion in Guasca and my project especially made everything worth while, and I'm looking forward to contributing to tourism in Colombia again in some other way soon.

In the end

It was an exhausting yet rewarding experience full of new learnings and understandings.
The warmth and generosity of most Colombians is unparalleled to anywhere else that I have been.

Also, Cartagena is a truly awesome and wondrous city to spend an extended period of time.
Stay tuned for a detailed insight into living in Cartagena.


Posted by SkinnyFists 18:33 Archived in Colombia Tagged colombia cartagena sena teaching_english heart_for_change sena_cartagena volunteers_colombia cartagena_bilingüe _heart_for_change_colombia Comments (1)

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