When you think about teaching as a profession, a few images probably come to mind: classrooms, chalkboards, maybe an apple.

While a lot of important work happens in that classroom setting, some of the most meaningful learning experiences – for both students and teachers – happen outside of it. That’s why Jennifer Garbe-Coy and Veronica Thompson from the Foreign Language Teacher Education Program are using travel to help students put what they’ve learned to use – and help others at the same time.

After raising $8,000 with their students, the Spanish teachers took six graduating seniors from Champaign Central High School to Barrojas, Guatemala over the summer, where they built houses for two families and distributed backpacks full of school supplies to children in the community.

“There is no better feeling than sharing [this] experience with students, as some of them leave the U.S. for the first time, and they get to use what they have learned in our classes in real life,” said Garbe-Coy.

The volunteer trip dates back to 2017. Since then, they’ve taken four groups to Guatemala and worked with three organizations, the most recent being From Houses to Homes. They’ve built and installed safe wood burning stoves, purchased and installed filters for safe drinking water, donated money and time to animal welfare programs, and built houses.

“This was our first trip in which we built two houses,” said Garbe-Coy. “The feeling of handing over the keys to the families after working alongside of them and getting to know them during the week is indescribable. They were some of the most humble, hardworking, and loving people I have ever met.”

Along with this yearly trip to Guatemala, they also lead a trip to Costa Rica every other year during spring break. When they’re not traveling with students or teaching Spanish at Central High School, they’re working with FLTE. Thompson teaches FLTE 475, a required course for all FLTE students, and Garbe-Coy has served as a cooperating teacher with the program for 20 years. 

FLTE teachers and students
Veronica Thompson (left) and Jennifer Garbe-Coy (center) pose with students during trip to Guatemala. Photo provided by Jennifer Garbe-Coy.

“Over the years, I’ve had around 20 student teachers and observers,” said Garbe-Coy. “I’ve also mentored first year teachers in Unit 4 for about 15 years. I enjoy working with young teachers and teaching them everything I know, as well as learning from them.”

FLTE director Jude Krushnowski said their commitment to students has been an inspiration for him, along with exemplifying FLTE’s mission of developing passionate teachers who build intercultural competence, extend learning beyond the classroom, and foster lifelong language learning.  

“While many teachers are using this much needed time [over break] to recharge, these two exceptional educators are using their own time and resources to guide students through authentic cultural experiences that allow them to use their Spanish outside of the classroom, in the community, and around the world,” he said. 

Garbe-Coy and Thompson aren’t done traveling, either.

“We will most likely do the same trip next summer,” said Garbe-Coy. “We will also begin planning our next trip with current high school students for spring break 2024… to Costa Rica again? Or maybe we will try somewhere new.”

Above all, Garbe-Coy said she hopes their efforts serve as an example for students who are considering becoming teachers themselves or preparing to enter the profession.

"I hope they see how rewarding it is to be a teacher, despite all of the struggles we face. I hope they see how much I genuinely love my students and my job, and that they feel the same."

Dania De La Hoya