The Alumni Spotlight is a new feature of the Alumni Advisor, our email newsletter, where we sit down and chat with a Millennium HS alumnus about their lives after Millennium. We announce when we plan to write the next feature, so please feel free to nominate yourself or another alumnus by shooting us an email with your name, contact information, and a brief description as to why you think you should be in the spotlight for followup.
This issue’s spotlight is a double feature focused on Sarah Simon and Kyla McLaughlin, both graduates from the class of 2013. Sarah and Kyla shared a serendipitous experience as the two attended different colleges since graduating from Millennium HS, and reunited in the same English-teaching program in Quito, Ecuador. The MHSAA took some time to interview them about their lives abroad, how it’s changed them, and how their connection to MHS helped them along the way.
(Photo slideshow of Kyla and Sarah in Quito. Photos alternate between Kyla and Sarah’s experiences, with Kyla first and Sarah following in that order.)
1] Tell us about yourselves. (Where did you grow up, what year did you graduate, and what college journey did you take after MHS?)
Sarah: I grew up in Manhattan, in a neighborhood called Yorkville (some people lump it under the Gossip Girls-reminiscent “Upper East Side,” but they’re just on the wrong side of history there). I had always gone to schools in my neighborhood, so traveling down to MHS on the subway every day was a milestone for me. I graduated with the class of 2013, and then went to the State University of New York at Geneseo (SUNY Geneseo), where I graduated in May 2017.
Kyla: I’m a Brooklyn native, Windsor Terrace to be exact. I loved growing up in a city, near a park, surrounded by culture and diversity. I graduated from MHS in 2013. I decided to leave big city life for four years and attended Kenyon College in Ohio, studying Spanish and Sociology. I graduated in May of 2017.
2] Tell us more about your story of how you two met abroad. How did you both feel about having someone you know doing the same thing in a foreign country and city?
Sarah: It was a funny coincidence. I was in Quito, Ecuador, teaching English through a program called WorldTeach. While sitting in the teacher’s lounge (I remember it vividly), I saw Kyla on the list of volunteers-to-come that the organization had sent us. I then Facebook messaged her to confirm that the Kyla McLaughlin on the list was the Kyla McLaughlin I was thinking of. I was stunned — “el mundo es un pañuelo”, it’s a small world (the meaning’s the same, even though it translates verbatim to “the world is a handkerchief”.)
When Kyla got to Quito, it was the beginning of her year there and halfway through mine. I was just looking forward to seeing how her experience went, and offering advice. I think I was so eager to offer advice that I offered too much.
Kyla: Sarah and I had lost touch after high school, so it was a pleasant surprise to know someone from my past was going to be sharing this experience with me. It was such a small world coincidence that we ended up doing the same program abroad. During her time here, Sarah was a guiding light for me, extremely helpful when I faced a new challenge and she had already dealt with something similar. She and I got to reconnect and it was really natural. I am happy that we rekindled our relationship and got to share this experience together.
3] Tell us more about what you’re doing now.
Sarah: As of right now (Nov. 2018), I’m in NYC waiting tables, taking the dreaded GRE exams, touring grad schools, and waiting until March. Why March? Well, from March-November 2019, I’ll be traveling to Uruguay on the Fulbright to, you guessed it, teach English once again.
Kyla: As Sarah said previously, I arrived in Ecuador in February and will be here until December. I am in my last cycle of teaching English in Quito. It’s definitely bittersweet and I cannot believe that my time is almost over.
4] What made each of you want to teach English abroad? How did you come into that situation?
Sarah: I communicate my reasons through un dicho, a saying: “No fue el pez que descubrió el agua” – “it wasn’t the fish that discovered water”.
It just makes the most sense to me to leap out of my comfortable world for a little while, before deciding on grad school and a career. Also, in college, I committed myself to falling in love with Spanish. Yes, I logically arrived at an emotion, realizing how important it was to know this language. Many touted Spanish’s “marketability”, and sure – being multilingual is like sticking a gold star on one’s resume or LinkedIn page. But I also started to recognize the urgency of working with individuals who represent a marginalized group, constantly under- and misrepresented in society and the media.
Kyla: As a college senior, one of the most challenging things is deciding what to do next. Leaving the comfort of four years in the same place with mostly the same people is difficult. I had previously decided that I wanted to live abroad and be in a Spanish-speaking country. As someone who majored in Spanish, I wanted to continue using it and improving. I also did not want to immediately go into the working world nor did I want to go to graduate school right away. As such, WorldTeach was a great option for me because it allowed to pursue my Spanish, live abroad, and ultimately, gave me the opportunity to try something new. I had never taught before and this was a scary, but exciting challenge for me. This became my post-college gap year, the chance for me to go out in the world and explore as well as work with people who wanted to learn English and use it, just like my desire to learn Spanish. I knew where these students were coming from and wanted to be a part of that journey.
5] What is the most rewarding about it?
Sarah: Teaching and living in Ecuador for a year has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done; I had to adjust to the external world so much that I’m coming out a more secure and flexible person because of it.
Kyla: I have learned an extremely important lesson here: any challenge that I face, I can overcome. While I feel connected to my students, my friends, and my colleagues and have tremendously improved as a teacher and Spanish-speaker, there have been many obstacles for me during my time in Ecuador. Sometimes, it feels like everything bad happens to you and you can’t control it. Much of life is like this, for everyone. However, I’ve learned to find ways to turn initially negative things into positive ones. I think that I couldn’t have survived my time here without this ability and it’s something that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.
6] What are the greatest challenges?
Sarah: Exactly what brought me the most satisfaction – adjusting to everything, feeling alone at times. But you work to become your own advocate, go out there, make more of an effort to speak with people (in your second language, too!), and make/find your happy place. This is a place you’ve never been, and you have to figure out not only how you’re going to survive, but how you’re going to be happy.
Kyla: I have always been extremely tenacious, but Ecuador has challenged and continues to challenge my tenacity everyday. I was the sickest I’ve ever been in my entire life here, and from something that I love, food. Dealing with illness while being abroad was extremely difficult sometimes. However, I found my inspiration through my students and my desire to teach. Even though there were some bad days, being sick actually made me a lot stronger.
Teaching can be rewarding, but is also very challenging at times. As I said earlier, I had never taught before, much less English. At first, when I was suddenly in charge of a room full of students and their English education, I was nervous. With time, these nerves disappeared and I realized that I have the chance to make my classes educational and fun. My students rely on me and that’s something that I keep in mind when any challenge arises.
7] Let’s talk about skills. What skills do you think are most essential to teaching abroad? What did you have to learn to achieve this goal?
- At least an intermediate level in the host country’s language (or an amazing resilience to communication challenges)
Notice how I’m talking about personal skills here ⅔ times – the skills you have governing and operating yourself as a person. It’s hard to say how they’re learned, but MHS surely challenged me in these areas.
1) Flexibility – Sarah is completely right. If you are not flexible while teaching abroad, you will not succeed. New things happen every day and a lot of time, they’re unexpected. Flexibility is so important because you need to be able to go with flow and think on your feet, especially when something unexpected happens..
2) Patience – There are so many challenges when teaching and living abroad. Being patient is key because being new in an unfamiliar place where the language may or may not be one that you know can be frustrating. Not understanding right away or making mistakes are both part of the process and this definitely goes hand in hand with flexibility.
3) Being Open-Minded – Living in another place gives you the opportunity to get to know that place and its people. Being abroad introduces you to different ways of life, usually different from your own. Maintaining the idea that everything will be exactly the same as what you’re used to from your home country is not the way to go into teaching abroad. Things are going to be different and challenge your opinions and customs, but being different doesn’t mean better or worse.
All of these skills I’ve learned over time through traveling, teaching, living abroad, school, etc.
8] What was your proudest moment about teaching English abroad?
Sarah: That my students and I still talk.
Kyla: I’ve had multiple memorable moments as a teacher. One was when I helped two former students prepare for graduate school interviews in English. They were both so nervous about them, but I guided them through the process and asked them potential interview questions. Both of them are now in graduate school in Spain. Another was when a student told me that I was the best English teacher he had ever had and that made me feel really special and proud of what I had achieved in the classroom.
9] What is on your wish list for your future?
Sarah: Besides more nameable things like the Fulbright in Uruguay, mainly just my preferred mix of predictability and unpredictability. I have a “five-year plan” for myself, but I’m open to twists, too.
Kyla: I have always wanted to make a difference in the world, whether it’s in New York, in the United States, or abroad. While I am not sure what I want to do next after Ecuador, I hope to be helping people.
10] What advice do you have for other alumni/current MHS students about teaching abroad/college/work/life?
Sarah: Do it because you feel like you need to – both for yourself and for others. And if you don’t have that feeling, do some reading on current world affairs, as well as on the legacy of colonialism. And if you’re getting ready to work/study abroad, work your language ability up to at least the intermediate level. Once you get there, make friends with people who don’t speak English all the time.
Kyla: You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to know what you’re doing for work or where you’re going to grad school. You just have to find something that you’re passionate about and pursue it. Take advantage of any opportunity that sparks your creativity, your curiosity, your dreams. Whatever you decide to do, commit to it. College, work, teaching abroad, all of these pursuits are what you make of them. Go in with an open mind and just try something new. Even if it doesn’t work out, you at least tried and can move on to bigger and better things. The world is literally your oyster.
11] Are there any skills MHS taught you that you took with you into this career?
Sarah: I trace back my love of learning to MHS. I just wasn’t a committed student until 9th and 10th grade, when I had wonderful teachers who helped me sharpen my study habits and whet my curiosity to learn. Teachers who will always stick out in my memory are Ms. Pickering (Global History), Mr. O’Neill (Geometry), Mr. Garfinkel (English & AP English Language), and Mr. Lamonte (Bio-Chem). Without this mixture of teachers and timing, or at a school where I didn’t find the ingredients I needed, my grades wouldn’t have improved, I wouldn’t have gone to the college I went to, etc. Maybe I wouldn’t have been enthusiastic enough about learning to seek out becoming a teacher abroad.
Kyla: I appreciated the work and effort my teachers put into my education. Teaching has made me appreciate them even more. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication. I have always loved learning new things, especially ones that challenge my thought process and make me think critically. MHS, along with my college education, my support system, and my experiences put me on a path to where I am now.
12] Did either of you partake in the Foreign Exchange program at MHS? If so, how did participating in that program help you in the future?
Sarah: Ah, yes. The Ecuador February ‘13 trip – little did I know it would only be a precursor.
Kyla: I went to Peru in 2011 with Foreign Exchange. Subsequently, I have returned to Peru twice. I spent a summer in college volunteering with the YMCA, the organization MHS worked with during my first time in Peru. I recently went back on vacation and got to reunite with some of the friends I had made. Foreign Exchange Peru was one of the first trips that I took where it wasn’t simply about tourism; it was about making a difference and helping people. This was an extremely important travel milestone in my life and I’m really thankful for the experience. It helped shape the way I view the world and my place within it.
More on Sarah: