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The right fit at the right time

Sharon Torkelson

“You’re doing WHAT? Why now?”As a “seasoned” educator close to retirement, I often heard those questions when I shared my Peace Corps plans with professional colleagues, friends, and family members. Usually, I responded with my own question:“Why not?”

Becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer is an opportunity I never could have imagined at this point in my professional and personal life, but the timing is actually just right. My children are adults. I am well-established in my career, and I have a breadth of knowledge, experience, and a unique skillset that I did not have to offer when I first considered the Peace Corps in my 20s. Serving in the Peace Corps is a calling that has been lingering on my bucket list since I turned 25. Now, several decades later, I am fulfilling that dream as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer on a one-year assignment in the Andean region of Colombia.

Peace Corps CEO welcomes Volunteer
Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn welcomes Sharon.

Colombia has been called one of the “happiest” countries in South America, and it is certainly one of the most welcoming. People greet each other, and each day brings a new invitation for “tinto,” a shot of black coffee, with or without sugar, that is enjoyed several times and at all hours of the day. Colombians take their coffee seriously. It is part of the culture. Lifelong friendships, business partnerships, and sometimes true love have been initiated over a cup of strong Colombian coffee. As an avid coffee connoisseur, I never turn down an invitation. A cup of coffee with a new acquaintance is an opportunity to learn something new about the culture, social customs, and language of Colombia. The regional word sumerce crept into my vocabulary over a cup of coffee with a new colleague. Sumerce is a word that conveys friendship and respect in the Andean region. As a visiting teacher at public secondary schools, I hear this endearing term from students and colleagues as I share my ideas and experience as a language teacher.

Daily interaction with teachers and students is what I love most about my job as an English education specialist. My primary role is supporting teachers by introducing effective communicative methods and strategies for Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). Collaborating with teachers and visiting classrooms in my community is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work. Keeping students engaged and interested in learning English is the goal! With that in mind, I sponsor English conversation clubs for high school students and adults in my community. I have also started a cross-cultural pen pal project between students in Colombia and students from my hometown in Florida.

Colorful pen pal letters
Pen pal letters ready for students in Florida.

The project that will have the most reach in influencing English language learners in Colombia long after my assignment is completed is a national website and radio program produced by Colombia’s Ministry of Education. I never imagined my experience in the Peace Corps would provide a path for me to revisit my former career in radio. As a former radio reporter (long before the invention of the podcast), I love the potential for great storytelling through audio. The absence of video allows listeners to create their own mental images as a story unfolds. English for Colombia (ECO) Radio produces podcast style radio programs, which they broadcast on more than 150 stations throughout Colombia. The programs promote English language learning to primary and secondary students.

Four people dressed in red, white, and blue
Sharon celebrating Fourth of July with Colombian friends.

Collaborating on the third season of ECO Radio, I earned my first online screen credit as a language coach working with young professional actors in the recording of ECO Kids and ECO Teens radio programs. In addition to coaching English pronunciation during studio recording sessions, I assisted with script revisions, editing, and proofreading instructional materials that accompany 12 new episodes, each with its own unique story set in Colombia.

Storytelling provides a natural path to conversational fluency and language acquisition for children and adults. As a language teacher and professional development trainer, I have been promoting the benefits of language learning through comprehensible input and storytelling for many years. I am introducing this strategy to English professors at Colombia’s national training service (SENA). Students enrolled in SENA vocational training are learning English as they prepare for careers in culinary arts, agriculture, tourism, and business.

Through my work as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer, I am learning to appreciate and adapt to whatever challenges the day brings. From running out of gas in a taxi on a mountain top to explaining the second amendment in my second language, life in the Peace Corps is demanding but never routine. Each day is another chapter, another adventure, in my story of personal and professional growth.