She grew up in Lanham, attended high school in Bladensburg and now lives in Hyattsville, but 22-year-old Ali Philbrick will call Panama home for the next six months as she teaches English to middle or high school students in the Central American country’s capital.
The opportunity to work with Panamanian students on their conversational English combines her love of travel and of the Spanish culture, her interest in teaching and her desire to volunteer, Philbrick said.
“While I’m young, I might as well help people,” said Philbrick, who earned an undergraduate degree in math in 2010 from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J. “The ability to speak English is really important to [Panamanians] because with the Panama Canal, their economy is changing.”
Philbrick will live in the country through a program run by WorldTeach, a nonprofit organization based in Cambridge, Ma., that provides about 500 volunteer teachers annually to meet needs identified by foreign governments. Maggie Tabach, WorldTeach’s senior program manager, said Panama is the newest program opened by WorldTeach.
The country’s Ministry of Education “saw value in recruiting native English speakers to come to work with the students, especially on their speaking and listening,” Tabach said.
“They’re really trying to improve that part of their educational system for economic development.”
Philbrick, who left Saturday for Santiago, Panama, is one of two Prince George’s County residents who will participate this year in one of WorldTeach’s summer, semester or yearlong programs in about 18 countries.
Philbrick joined three other women from WorldTeach in Santiago for a three-week orientation before she moves to Panama City. There, Philbrick will live with a retired Panamanian woman until she returns to the United States in December.
To prepare to teach middle or high school students Philbrick will learn her assignment later she has been volunteering at El Centro Manuel Zapata Olivella, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization that promotes the culture and education of Afro-Latinos.
Philbrick said she has generated some ideas for teaching her classes in Panama City from observing MZO teachers.
She said she plans to have her classes of 30 or more students journal some days and, at least once, bring in photographs of themselves to practice descriptive words. Philbrick also has purchased word searches and crossword puzzles for students.
The six-month program costs about $4,000 to pay for plane tickets, health care, conferences, and the volunteers’ in-country support system, Tabach said. The teachers are volunteers, but they do receive a monthly stipend of $200 to $300 from the country’s Ministry of Education.
Philbrick’s mother, Ruth Philbrick, said the experience will help her daughter understand what type of career she would like to pursue.
“Now she’s talking a bit about doing international education,” said Ruth Philbrick, of Hyattsville. “That will help her make a decision about doing this as a career.”
Ruth Philbrick said she doesn’t worry about her outgoing daughter’s ability to relate to her Panamanian students, but she does, like many mothers, worry about her safety.
“I’m worried about not being able to communicate with her daily,” Ruth Philbrick said. “I just always want to know she’s safe.”
The State Department’s website classifies crime in Panama City as “high” but notes that the rate of violent crime in the city decreased slightly in 2010.
Read more about Ali Philbrick’s trip on her blog, www.lettersfrompanama.com.