Anthropology and Sociology and Spanish Double Major
Kelly Vlaskamp was a project supervisor for Amigos de las Américas
(AMIGOS), a non-profit organization that inspires and builds youth leaders
through collaborative community development and cross-cultural experiences throughout Latin America.
Tell us more about your internship and day-to-day experiences.
As a project supervisor, I worked with nine other staff members to promote youth leadership and to plan and implement successful projects. I oversaw eight high school aged American volunteers in four communities in the districts of Acahay and Ybycuí in Paraguay. I was their main support system, helped them facilitate community meetings, recruited local youth to be involved in the projects, filled out necessary paperwork, and did any and everything else to support them. My job included everything from being a mentor to a mailman.
There wasn't a typical day for me. I started my week by going to a meeting with one of our partner agencies, Plan International, to discuss the progress of projects. After the meeting, I started my weekly community visits. I traveled to each community to check in on the volunteers' emotional and physical health, helped them with projects, attended the workshops the volunteers held, checked in with host families and community members, and solved any problems that arose. My days varied so drastically that the only consistent day-to-day activities were the long distance bus rides through the Paraguayan countryside to get to communities, eating and preparing traditional foods, and doing whatever the volunteers needed me to do.
What was the coolest part of your experience?
One of the most rewarding parts of being a project supervisor was watching the volunteers have life-changing experiences and going out of their comfort zones at such a young age. I visited volunteers once a week and saw them transform into confident young leaders in such a short amount of time. Each week, I made weekly goals with them and saw them accomplish their goals and noticed how their self-confidence increased throughout the summer.
One of my communities wanted to build a school kitchen for their community-based initiative project, so I collaborated with community members and the volunteers to gather information for a competitive grant, the Bevil Grant, which is worth $1,500. With the information gathered, I filled out the application and found out that it was approved. The community members were very excited, and the construction process had already begun. I was very proud to be a part of this process and to watch the community implement a project as big and sustainable as this one.
Other than that, a great part of this role was that I got to meet so many great people (in addition to my AMIGOS volunteers) while on route. I met volunteers from various countries doing an array of projects; I was invited to drink mate (a traditional tea beverage) with strangers while walking down the street; I became friends with taxi drivers; I was offered places to stay and meals to eat just because the people here were so kind and welcoming. Paraguayans were so hospitable to me, and sometimes it's necessary to be reminded how many honest and nice people are in the world.
How did you learn about this opportunity?
I first heard about AMIGOS in 2008 from a friend. Since then, I had been a volunteer in Mexico (2008) and Nicaragua (2010), served on the training team for the Houston Chapter in 2009, and worked in the international office as the travel coordinator in 2011. I was already very involved in the organization when I arrived at Knox and when I decided to apply, the Spanish Department was very supportive and encouraging.
How did your experiences at Knox benefit you?
All Spanish classes and attending Mesa Española helped me prepare for the experience. To be on the staff team, you had to have a high level of Spanish, so every opportunity to speak Spanish at Knox helped. I also studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, which taught me about cultural sensitivity, using foreign public transportation systems, and learning colloquialisms of the specific regions, especially Argentine Spanish, which is similar to Paraguayan Spanish. I took Julio Noriega's Spanish Culture of the Southern Cone, which covered literature, movies, and history of some South American countries, including Paraguay. Outside of the classroom, Kappa Kappa Gamma gave me responsibilities within the Chapter that taught me about responsibility and leadership skills, which I used on a daily basis in Paraguay.
What inspired you to pursue this opportunity?
After having such positive experiences with AMIGOS, I knew the next logical step was to become a project supervisor so I could support the volunteers and encourage them to make the most of their AMIGOS experience. It seemed like the right time to be a project supervisor because it was right after I studied in Argentina and Spain for two terms. After those experiences abroad, I knew I didn't want to sit in a cubicle staring at a computer screen all day and that I wanted a challenging experience, so I applied for the position and ended up in Paraguay.
How did this experience benefit you in terms of your future plans?
Being immersed in the language and Paraguayan culture was beneficial as a Spanish major. I would like to study cultural anthropology with a focus on indigenous groups, so I was lucky to work in Paraguay because they have strong indigenous Guarani roots. Because of this experience, I decided that I'll eventually apply to graduate school for public health anthropology or urban planning, and hopefully I will do the Peace Corps.
(Below: Kelly Vlaskamp, front row, third from left, oversees eight American volunteers in four communities in the Paraguayan districts of Acahay and Ybycuí)