Hispanic Heritage Month Q&A: Andrea René Franke
Hispanic Heritage Month is September 15 - October 15. To celebrate all of our incredible Hispanic Volunteers, we talked with several RPCVs about their service. This is Andrea's story.
After serving in Peace Corps Nicaragua from 2016-2018, Andrea René Franke returned to her hometown where she works as a 7th grade language arts and social studies teacher in a two-way immersion program. Originally started as a Third Goal project during her second year of service, Andrea is the founder of Andrea René Abroad, a popular YouTube channel dedicated to helping prospective Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) get more information on applying and preparing for Peace Corps service. Andrea continues to make new videos for the channel and also serves as the communications coordinator for the Portland Peace Corps Association.
Why did you apply to the Peace Corps?
Like most Volunteers, I applied for a variety of reasons–some philanthropic and some self-serving. One of the reasons was my yearning and need for a global experience. I felt that serving in Latin America with the Peace Corps would not only help improve my professional practice as a bilingual educator but also my cultural and linguistic identity formation.
At the time of departure, I was 23 years-old and had little world experience. Outside of visiting family in Guatemala and the occasional drive up to Canada, I had never spent more than two weeks outside of Portland, Oregon, my hometown. On top of that, I was one of those students who went straight from kindergarten to graduate school and, like many Hispanics, was still living at home with my parents. About halfway through graduate school, it occurred to me that I would be entering the workforce with no world experience and little to no age gap between me and my students. I realized I would be much better equipped as an educator to mentor adolescents (and just be an adult in general) if I first gained some real-world experience. Middle schoolers challenge you in all sorts of ways; I am glad I had the opportunity to teach 8th grade in Nicaragua before teaching 7th grade here in Oregon.
How did your Hispanic identity influence your Peace Corps experience?
Something that stands at the forefront of my experience as an Hispanic-American Volunteer was my constant awareness of my Spanish language acquisition. When I first arrived in country, I had quite a large Spanish vocabulary, but my grammar was all over the place. I grew up speaking Spanish, double majored in it, and was part of a bilingual teacher program for graduate school. However, as most American-born Hispanics will know (or any American-born person of a minority linguistic group), my dance with Spanish language proficiency is a lifelong battle. I remember being incredibly nervous before my first Language Proficiency Interview (LPI) because it was more than just a language test for me: it was a measure of the authenticity of my cultural identity. The test was not just for me, but for my entire family. My LPI score felt like a constant rollercoaster. When you enter service in one of the “advanced” proficiency categories (low, middle, high), you do not take the LPI as many times as your peers, so I was always anxious to know whether or not I was improving. Since our country was evacuated before our predetermined Close of Service date, I had to do my final LPI over WhatsApp two months after departing country. Even though I was speaking Spanish at home with my mom, I was still anxious since I knew my final LPI score would appear on my Description of Service (DOS). When I finally took the LPI and received my score of “superior,” it meant so much to me and my family. It felt like I had finally reached the top of the roller coaster, and no one could question the authenticity of my Hispanic identity. The feeling I had is honestly more than I can explain in words. It meant so much to me.
What was it like to live with a Nicaraguan host family as an Hispanic American Volunteer?
I absolutely loved the host family aspect of being an Hispanic American Volunteer. This is the part of my service where I felt like I was able to learn the most about what my mom’s day-to-day life was like in Guatemala. Chores, such as washing clothes by hand on the lavandera and sorting the good beans from the beans with gorgojos (a little beetle that loves burrowing inside beans), felt like tests assigned to see whether or not I would be able to withstand the Central American lifestyle of my ancestors. I remember calling my mom and telling her that I had spent the afternoon sorting beans with my host mom. She was elated to hear about the gorgojos. Though a nuisance, she had almost forgotten they existed and felt sentimental and nostalgic in remembering them.
There were many moments that I was able to share with my mom, and when she was eventually able to come visit me in country, it was such an affirming experience for me and my host family. There were a few other Hispanic American Volunteers in my cohort who had similar experiences when their Latin American-born parents came and visited. It felt like I could say, “Look, Ma! I passed the test!” If I have children one day, I will definitely encourage them to spend time in Latin America.
Did you choose your host country or did you go where needed most?
From the beginning of my application process, I knew that I wanted to serve in Latin America, preferably in the Education sector. Nicaragua was my number one choice because I would be working as a secondary Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) teacher and trainer, which was closely aligned with my profession, bilingual language arts teacher in the United States. My second and third choices were Youth and Development in Guatemala and Peru, respectively.
During pre-departure I was wrapping up my master’s in education in the Bilingual Teacher Education Program at Portland State University, so a secondary TEFL project seemed perfect. During the application process I consulted Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), Peace Corps recruiters and my college career advisor many times. I wanted to maximize my chances of getting into Peace Corps Nicaragua. I could not have done it alone!
Are you happy with the outcome?
Though impacted by an untimely evacuation after 20 months in-country, I absolutely loved my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua. The pieces all fell together when I realized my counterparts, community leaders, and site mates all matched my enthusiasm and commitment. I would like to give my community a shout out for their work ethic—everyone seemed to be involved in a million things at once. It was not uncommon for English teachers in my community to be concurrently pursuing a degree—most local professionals worked Monday through Saturday and attended college courses during the evenings and weekends.
Additionally, because of the large size of my site, there were industrious Peace Corps Volunteers from all four sectors: Business, Health, Environment, and two other TEFL Volunteers besides myself. We all worked extremely hard and were able to accomplish a lot. Again, this was due to the commitment and dedication to sustainable development of our counterparts. Most Volunteers realize this can make or break your service. I feel so lucky!
My counterparts and I felt we accomplished what we set out to do: create comprehensive lesson plans based on the guidelines for English as a Foreign Language from Nicaragua’s Ministry of Education and Peace Corps’ TEFL curriculum for 8th grade English. Before the end of my service, we turned our work into a book of lesson plans for 8th grade English that we were able to share with all of the 8th grade English teachers in our community. The book is available in print and digital format. On top of this, we graduated an entire cohort from Striving Towards English Proficiency, a college level course for English teachers run in partnership with Fundación Uno, a local NGO, started by my Peace Corps site predecessors (and fellow Portlanders). We were only five weeks away from graduating the second cohort before our evacuation. According to social media, these teachers continue to support one another in their English teaching practice. Thanks to modern technology, I have been able to stay in contact with many of them.
Do you think being an Hispanic American Volunteer gave you a different perspective or a different experience to your non-Hispanic colleagues?
It may have, but it is hard to say since I only have my own experience to dissect and examine. Additionally, I know for a fact that many of my fellow Hispanic Volunteers had very different experiences. Hispanic Americans come from all different races and walks of life—some felt more accepted and culturally aligned with Nicaraguan culture than others. Some of my fellow Hispanic Volunteers liked their site and counterparts, and some did not. It is really important to understand that the experience of one Volunteer (person of color or not) is so different from the next. Though I had a lot of success on site, I struggled to relate and interact with my fellow Volunteers during my first year of service. I threw myself into the work because I cared so much about my service but also as a way to avoid thinking about how isolated I felt as a result of not fitting in. Over time, these issues resolved themselves, but I will never forget how much anxiety attending in-service trainings gave me during my first year of service. I am sure I am not alone in this experience, but I felt alone at the time.