GTL student Emily Berzolla teaches math and science in Barcelona

"I taught students how to dissect lungs in the morning, walked through Park Güell in the afternoon, and saw Lionel Messi score a game-winning goal at night. GTL gave me so many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and helped me grow as both a student and a p

An MIT student and avid soccer fan, Emily had no idea the surprises she was in for when she traveled to the land of soccer to teach science classes to high school students.

Challenge and real reward

Emily worked at La Miranda, a private school in Sant Just Desvern, which is a town right outside of Barcelona. The school has a range of students from 1 year old to 18 years old, so she was able to interact with a variety of different ages. She spent most of her time working with the third and fourth ESO (16-18 years old), teaching math, physics and biology. The teachers already had most of the lesson plans made from previous years, so she had most of her teaching resources already made up for her. Because of this, she noted that she didn’t have much freedom in what she taught, but it allowed her to focus on how she went about teaching the subject matter. It was rewarding for Emily to see the excitement on the students’ faces after class when they told her that they actually understood the physics they had just learned, or that the trigonometry they were struggling with was starting to make sense. Outside of class, she helped some of these students that were struggling with the material by going over extra problems and preparing them for the test. One of these students was her host sister, who ended up receiving a nine (out of ten) for the first time ever in her math class. Emily said she thinks she showed her host sister and several other students what they were capable of if they put the time and effort into their studies.

In addition to this, the biggest impact Emily had at La Miranda was opening up the students to the opportunities out there in math and science, first in terms of education and later in terms of jobs and careers. The younger students especially were fascinated with MIT, and wanted to come study here when they were older. For the older students, who were a bit more hesitant about going to school in another country, Emily was able to tell them about all the interesting jobs and research that they could find in the STEM fields. It was these interactions outside of the classroom where she felt most connected with the students, and where she could tell they were getting something out of her time. The biggest cultural challenge Emily faced in the workplace was the rowdiness of the students during class time. For the first few days, she sat in and observed other teachers holding class, and she says she couldn’t believe how disrespectful the students were toward them. It was similar when she taught the classes herself; students would talk while she was teaching, or give up and play on their ipads if they didn’t understand a topic. She learned that by calling out the few students who were distracting the others, she was able to get the whole class to pay attention and lead a more productive lesson.

Immediate immersion

Emily emphasized that her host family was her favorite part of her trip. They welcomed her in with open arms and immediately immersed her in the culture of Spain. Emily’s first day was a bit of a culture shock. The moment she got off the airplane, her family greeted her and began to speak in excitedly fast-paced Spanish (they didn’t speak any English), telling her about the plans they had, the people who wanted to meet her, and asking if she wanted to go to a soccer game. Within an hour of her arrival to Spain, she was sitting in Camp Nou, no more than 20 yards away from her idol (Leonel Messi), surrounded by Barca fans shouting for liberty and holding up yellow independence flags. She noted that she felt as if she had hit the ground running in this entirely different culture, and she says couldn’t have been more excited. As the day went on, she began to see more and more subtle differences between the culture of Spain and the US. Post-game, Emily’s host family took her to the grandparents’ house for dinner, a weekly tradition. She was surprised by how close the family was to the grandparents, how much meat (specifically ham) was put on the table for dinner, and how reluctant the grandmother was to speak in Spanish instead of Catalan.

Throughout the weeks that followed, Emily slowly became accustomed to these little differences in culture. She began to drink coffee with her host mom every morning and pack a sandwich for lunch, but made sure to save room for the second lunch at 2 o’clock. At school, she would listen and try to pick up on the Catalan that the teachers spoke to each other when they forgot to switch to Spanish. During recess she would answer the questions of the prying young students who wanted to know everything from what she was studying in school to whether she had a boyfriend. After school Emily would take the bus then subway into Barcelona. She would wander the city most days until dinner time, sometimes with a destination, sometimes just to get lost in the old history of the city. When it came time for dinner, she sat down with her host family and learned all about their lives – how the dad’s business was doing, the crazy patients her mom had talked to, and the gossip her host sister heard that day ay school. After dinner, her host mom would drive to a nearby town, where she practiced soccer with a semi-professional team who taught her new tricks and plays she had never seen before.

By the end of Emily’s month in Spain, she felt completely immersed in their culture. She had grown accustomed to the late dinners, found herself speaking Spanish in her head, and no longer got lost in the narrow streets of the gothic quarter of Barcelona. She points out that it was so strange to feel so at home in a place so far away from her real home. For Emily, GTL was an amazing experience and she really enjoyed having a host family to make sure this was the case.

The power of yes

Emily commented that she surprised herself a bit on this trip. She mentioned that she had never been someone who was super outgoing or adventurous, but while in Spain she took advantage of every opportunity given to her, and even made some for herself. Most of these opportunities stemmed from the people she met and the relationships she made. For example, even though her Spanish wasn’t great and she was new to the school, she struck up a conversation with a gym teacher. This gym teacher turned out to be an ex-FC Barcelona player, and invited Emily to play on a team with her. Not only did Emily get to play soccer with some of the best players of her life, but through one connection after another she ended up training with a semi-professional team every other day. Emily notes she did the same with her host family, always saying yes to whatever they suggested no matter how tired or reluctant she was. Because of this, she got to see many different places, from Medieval towns on the Brava Coast to the back room of a small crypt designed by Gaudí where her host parents got married. Emily would 100% recommend this experience to any MIT student, as long as they are willing to step outside of their comfort zone. She mentioned that she wouldn’t have had nearly the experience she did without being willing to try new things and push herself outside of her comfort zone. Not only did she get to see a different country, but she met some of the most interesting people she knows, learned how to teach and connect with students, and immersed herself in a culture very different from the one at home. In one month, Emily sat so close to Lionel Messi she could touch him, taught 20 students how to dissect a sheep’s lungs, played soccer with the pros, saw the Sagrada Familia, biked for three hours through the city, went go kart racing on the top of a mountain, and did so much more. She said she doesn’t think she has ever had a more interesting or rewarding month. If Emily could do anything differently, she said she would probably ask more questions and ask to do more things, specifically at her school. She thinks she missed out on the teaching component more than anything else, because she was given so few classes to teach and plan for herself. This trip made Emily want to do GTL again, where she believes she’ll have plenty more opportunities to teach as well as explore.