diversity abroad

Taking a Chance on Mexico at 58

ITA alumna, Rosemarie Onwukwe, talks about her experience teaching English in Mexico City, Mexico, as a woman of color at the age of 58.

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When I received my TEFL certification from International TEFL Academy through their online TEFL course in 2013, I really didn't have a plan to teach abroad at that time. I was teaching ESL (English As a Second Language) at a charter school and thought it would be a good idea to have one more certification under my belt for the future. Fast forward to Spring of 2018, I decided to leave my teaching job at a public school in Washington D.C. I was ready for a change. I had interviewed at a couple of other local schools when the idea popped into my head. What about teaching abroad?

I ran the idea past my two adult children and they enthusiastically said, ”Go for it, mom!” So my international job search began at 58 years old. I know some of my friends and family members thought I was nuts but they mostly kept their thoughts to themselves. At first I was looking for jobs in the Middle East but I quickly realized that I was not getting call backs because of my age. Some schools even stated they only wanted to hire teachers 40-50 years old or younger.

Teach English in Mexico Over 50 TEFLThank goodness for my amazing ITA Student Affairs Advisor, Christie Koness, who explained that there were many other countries that would love to hire a seasoned teacher. I posted my resumes on some online job boards for recruiters to see. It took two months of job hunting but over the summer, I received a job offer teaching ESL at a private American School in Mexico City, Mexico. Christie reviewed the job contract with me and we both agreed that it sounded like a great offer! By the time I got hired, it was the end of July and I had one week to pack my life into two suitcases and head to Mexico.

One great thing about my school was that they helped so much with my transition to Mexico. They were there to pick me up at the airport and put me up in a nice, quaint hotel upon my arrival for a couple of weeks until I found an apartment. The very next day after arriving, I was headed to my new school to begin teacher training and meet my new colleagues. The school arranged transportation to school for the new teachers and as there were several of us staying at the same hotel, we were able to make instant friendships and bond together. After teacher training was over, I was introduced to my principal, colleagues and finally the students.

I must admit, going out and about was a challenge. Did I mention that I didn’t speak a word of Spanish? I was in total Spanish immersion and many people I met spoke very little English. But I found that in Mexico, people wanted to help and would do everything they could to help me to communicate and understand. Google Translate became my best friend. Some of the results were actually quite funny as they didn’t always translate correctly. I depended heavily on my co-workers that spoke Spanish. I’m afraid I bugged them for things I had never thought of before like getting internet service in my apartment, or setting up an account for grocery deliveries, figuring out the settings on my laptop, or going to the doctors for medical treatments.

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My school had someone who helped all the new teachers find housing. This was so helpful because I would never have understood the way apartments are rented in Mexico, especially with the language barrier. I remember going out with some colleagues who were contemplating doing a house-share. They were encouraging me to consider moving in with them. I hadn’t shared an apartment with anyone for about forty years. When I started telling them I had a 28-year-old son and a 25-year-old daughter (both of whom were close to their age) I think they finally realized how old I was. I could see them counting and calculating silently in their heads. When I told them I was 58 they were shocked! They thought I was 40! What a compliment. Soon after, I found a great apartment in the Condesa neighborhood. I loved my little apartment in the heart of the city.

I’m half Nigerian and half American and I’ll admit I got some stares in Mexico as there really weren’t a lot of African or African American women there. At least I didn’t see many in Mexico City (maybe four the entire time I was there and one was a colleague and another a former colleague). I was the only African American teacher at my campus and there was only one African American student at my school. The stares were mostly out of curiosity, never mean or condescending.

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One of the most wonderful things about my time in Mexico was the children at my school. I bonded with them and loved them so much. When I first started teaching I began with a firm demeanor. I knew some of them would test me and many had never even seen an African American before, especially a woman. Of course, as the school year continued, I softened up. I loved that I could present an idea or concept and the children would be fascinated and just absorb the lesson. For example we did a whole unit about Martin Luther King in February. I asked one grade what they knew about him. One of my little friends said he thought he was a king, so I told them his story and when I finished, the class started clapping. We discussed race, diversity, being different, and so many other topics came from that one lesson. I will always remember this experience and how I had the opportunity to share a part of my history and culture with my students and how they listened so earnestly. Engaging in that kind of cross-cultural dialogue and inviting discussion that centered around diversity and acceptance with my students was a special experience for all of us.

While I was in Mexico a good friend from Washington D.C. put me in touch with her childhood friend who also lived in Mexico City. She and her children later became my Mexican family. As a result, I had someone to take me around to many exciting places both in town like the malls, historic places and churches downtown, trolly rides through the neighborhoods and further away like the pyramids in Teotihuacan, thermal waters, and many other fun places. I made many friends, who also adopted me as family, especially my coworkers. I enjoyed Thanksgiving break on the beach in Acapulco relaxing in the sun, on weekends I took boat rides in Xochimilco, and explored markets like Mercado de Artisanias to buy souvenirs from the local crafts people.

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Mexico City is very exciting and vibrant. I had no idea how busy it would be. It is a colorful city, filled with sounds and music and the smell of some of the most delicious street foods you can imagine. I will be forever grateful for the experience of teaching abroad and getting to know Mexico City as home for a while. My TEFL certificate opened up a new chapter in my life for me at 58 years old. I learned that it is never too late to embark on an adventure in life. I continue to take Spanish lessons now that I have returned home to the States and I look forward to returning to Mexico soon to visit my friends and adopted family there, and to once again, enjoy the beauty and magic of Mexico City.

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