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  • Writer's pictureChristina Mesk

Visiting Centro Colombo Americano: English is the excuse, mindset is what matters!

It's really very difficult to pick a favorite part of my field experience in #Colombia with Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms. Every aspect, including the food, people and cultural immersion activities, was so delightful that I really did not want to go home after two weeks. It just didn't feel like enough time. As a result of this amazing field experience, I left understanding so much more about Colombian culture and myself as an individual and Global Citizen. However, if I did have to pick one stand out experience, I would choose our academic visit to The English Access Microscholarship Program in Bogotá on Tuesday, July 26, 2022.

After spending the morning at el Parque de La Sal, we were greeted by the enthusiastic staff and students of the Centro Colombo Americano, which hosts The English Access Microscholarship Program along with The Martin Luther King Scholarship and The College Horizons Program on behalf of the U.S. Embassy. The English Access Microscholarship Program is a two-year program that is open to students between 13-20 years old. While the main goal of the program is to help students gain proficiency in English and create more opportunities to participate in post-secondary education, there are benefits that supersede these goals.

When we met with Nelson Suarez, Program Coordinator from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, he explained that while learning English is the goal, the main benefit he has observed is the changing the mindset of low income students. Or as his colleague Rachel explained, "English is our excuse, mindset is what matters!"

Nelson explained that many of the alumni from The English Access Microscholarship Program wind up applying for and participating in exchanges with the US in addition to The College Horizons Program. I really enjoyed listening to Nelson speak about the importance of shifting the mindset of students from low income households and providing opportunities for those students to envision themselves in post-secondary education. As a special education teacher, shifting mindsets from one of a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is my number one priority. I have spent a lot of time exploring the work of Carol Dweck and Mary Cai Ricci on growth mindset. Mindset truly matters. Helping students develop a growth mindset is the cornerstone required for students with disabilities to move to less restrictive environments. Without self-motivation and the ability to see the value in risk-taking and mistakes, students with disabilities will find it difficult to make growth. Nelson's comments about the impact The English Access Microscholarship Program had on low income students also made me think about the experience that helped me to envision myself as a college student. For most of my middle and high school experience, I participated in the Girl Scout Scholars Program at Barnard College. One Saturday a month, I took the 1 train up to Barnard College and spent the day working with experts in their fields in exchange for a variety of Girl Scout patches. I wasn't earning college credit, but that experience of using college spaces and working with experts, helped me to envision myself earning an undergraduate degree even though my family didn't have a lot of money and neither of my parents had degrees. The Girl Scout Scholars Program helped me to shift my mindset at a crucial time in my development.

The growth mindset of the students at the Centro Colombo Americano was clear right from the start. We began our visit by participating in a panel for first year students. These students prepared questions about life in America and our experience in Colombia. The questions were deep and incisive. They touched on issues such as globalization, education and equity. However, my favorite part of our visit was the scavenger hunt we participated in with the second year students. Each of my colleagues and I were assigned to a group of 3-4 students. We stopped at 5 stations throughout the campus and at each station we had to complete a task in order to earn a word card for a question we would answer at the end of the event. At each station, our task was to engage in an English conversation built around American and Colombian traditions. I was paired with a trio of wonderful young women. At first, we were all a little shy and nervous, but at each station we shed more and more of that anxiety. We discussed our favorite foods, what our childhoods were like, our dreams, our favorite holidays and our families. At the end, we were able to build the question with our word cards and we discussed the relationship between the U.S. and #Colombia.

I really enjoyed our scavenger hunt because of the extra time it gave me to speak with the students. I also think this is a great activity for my multi-language students at PS 1, The School of Leadership and Creativity as they prepare for the NYSESLAT in the spring. This activity helped me to start to build a relationship with the students and made me feel like I was part of their learning community. I was so impressed by the growth mindset the students displayed throughout the scavenger hunt. Our conversations were by no means perfect. We all did have to draw on our Spanish vocabulary at times to support the context of the conversations, but never once did the students allow a mistake to keep them from participating. For many of the students we met, this was the second part of their school day. For those students still in high school, they had spent from 6:00 am to 12:00 pm at their high school campuses and then came over to Centro Colombo Americano to study English for at least 4 more hours. Motivation and perseverance are part of the building blocks that a true growth mindset rests on and these students are wonderful role models for what growth mindset can look like in any educational institution.

I am so appreciative that I was able to spend time with the students at Centro Colombo Americano. In this brief exchange, I played the role of a proficient English speaker and was representative of American life in Brooklyn, New York. However, I feel like I walked away with the greater gift. I was reminded that #mindsetmatters in every classroom, everywhere and that the most meaningful learning happens when we take risks and try to develop relationships with people from different walks of life. I will forever hold the students I worked with at Centro Colombo Americano as role models for myself as both a learner and a teacher.

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