I don’t see it as courage, it’s just something that I’ve wanted my whole life, to just travel, says Mia Spingola as she watches the neighborhood kids of Colombia play soccer, I mean football, outside of her balcony. This Around The Way Girl is living real life goals. She travels the world teaching English and is currently living in Colombia. As a little girl growing up on Chicago’s Northside, Mia always dreamed of traveling the world. Unsure of what path to take, Mia did a lot of transferring for college. She bounced around from Illinois State University, Harold Washington College, to DePaul University where she eventually received her degree in Public Relations. Despite taking the college route, Mia, like many millennials today, would have rather took time off to soul search before jumping the gun on school. Either way, her life path looks like it’s headed in the right direction.
First things first, what the hell is it that you do? Your Instagram is so lit with all the traveling and we just wanna get like you.
[Laughs] So right after I graduated college I didn’t even think twice about it. I said that’s it, I’m gonna travel and I’m gonna figure out how I’m gonna live in other countries, and support myself financially. (We get interrupted by the loud Colombian kiddies in a heated football game). I was doing my research and came across how to get TEFL certified to teach English. Basically what you do is enter this program to teach English as a second language in other countries, and this is under the assumption that the people already know some English. I mean you can honestly travel the world with this piece of paper that says you’re certified. All you do is a month of the program then travel the world teaching English, and that’s what I ended up doing. I moved to Argentina and taught out there, and now I’m in Colombia.
So right now I’m working with the Ministry of Education through a volunteer program called Heart for Change; they paired up with the ministry because they want Colombia to become bi-lingual within the next fifteen years. I work in a classroom with a Colombian native who’s also an English teacher, and we foreigners are there to offer the teachers the organic source of English. I’ve been teaching at public schools in Colombia where it’s most needed to teach English.
What gave you the courage to go travel by yourself?
That’s always such a difficult question for me because I don’t see it as courage, it’s just something that I’ve wanted my whole life, to just travel. I developed such a passion for it at a young age and set my mind on it and I just did it. Everyone always asks me that question and honestly I just got up, went, and did it. At times it gets scary of course, but you overcome that, just like anything in life regardless where you are.
Did you do any research? Was teaching your career choice?
I did SO much research it’s not even funny. I was kind of using teaching as a way of making money, then once I learned more about it I started to develop more of a passion for it as well. I was really really interested in how I can become the best English teacher and pick up different tactics. When I was in Argentina, half the time I was teaching myself how to become a better English teacher. It’s such a blessing because originally I had just wanted to travel and now I found another passion along the way.
Were you surprised that you developed this passion for teaching?
Hmmm, well, I love helping people. I was always good at helping people. I’m the oldest of five so it’s always something that’s come naturally to me, helping others and looking out for them. I think that characteristic ties a lot into teaching. I’ve always worked with kids and now I get to teach kids. I definitely want this to grow into something more. I think this is gonna be the beginning of something great and I’m gonna continue to build on this more and more.
So where would you like to see the future of your career?
I don’t even know what I’m doing tomorrow [Laughs]! That’s such a good question because I mean, I had an idea that kind of sparked in Argentina and was going somewhere before I left, and that was to create my own language institution. I just wanted to create a comfortable environment for people to learn English. It was going to be private classes, ideally Buenos Aires as the foundation, then evolve into something where I still get to travel while teaching. In the long run I would love to have my own English institution.
Do you speak Spanish?
[Laughs] No I learned when I went to Argentina and I still don’t know it all that well! My Spanish is still pretty bad to be honest with you, I still struggle. I mean, I’m learning new things every day! I can speak and understand Spanish but it’s nowhere near fluent. Everyday I’m using my brain and I’m exhausted at the end of the day, just because I can never be on autopilot. I’m constantly learning and soaking everything in.
Where all have you traveled?
Okay so in Europe I’ve done Italy a lot, five or six times, Croatia, Ireland, Spain three times, Amsterdam, and Netherlands.. Then there’s Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, Canada, Australia, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and I’m still planning my way over to Asia.
From all the places you’ve traveled, have you noticed a difference between the actual natives and how the media portrays the natives?
Oh totally. It’s incredible how the media portrays certain people from certain countries, and then when you actually have hands on experience it’s the complete opposite. I mean, Colombians are the happiest people on this whole entire planet, yet it’s seen as one of the most dangerous countries. They tell us not to travel to Colombia and not once have I felt threatened here. It just goes to show that the knowledge you receive from traveling beats a text book any day. Colombia has a HUGE African population, all along the Caribbean and Atlantic coast and I had no idea!
Have you experienced any culture shocks from traveling?
[Laughs] Uhh, the toilets. That’s when it all sets in. And they usually don’t have any toilet paper anywhere out here! Sometimes it’s the one with the hole in the ground. They also don’t have running water so you have to do the bucket system (pour a bucket of water into the toilet to flush everything). To be honest I don’t really get that culture shocked, it’s more reverse culture shock which really sucks. So like when after you move back home and everything sinks in, I experience that a lot. It’s just where we place our priorities in America and how all these other countries that, on paper are considered to be so bad, yet the people there are so happy with what little they have. We’re constantly moving, moving, moving, on the go, and how we define success and those types of things overwhelms me whenever I go back home. I’m like, you have no idea how people are living on the other side of the world.
Do you get American guilt?
Yeah totally. I feel absolutely terrible. All the time. Things like being in the classroom. I see the conditions that the kids have to learn in and then I look back on how I was brought up. I mean like a piece of paper! They don’t get handouts, they don’t have books, they don’t have desks, they barely have pencils! They don’t even have running water at this school! They have air conditioning units in the classrooms but they’re all broken and no one wants to come fix them, and we’re on the Caribbean coast, it’s hot as hell! I could give you a laundry list of things that the school gives me American guilt about.
What does an average day look like for you?
In Colombia they start school at 6:30am, early as hell. I have the morning shift which is 6:30am- 12pm. I have three classes which are two hours each, and then I stop for a really really cheap meal before heading home called Menu de el Dia. It’s fried fish, coconut rice, sweet plantains, and soup, it’s so delicious. Menu of the Day for one U.S. dollar! It’s easy, it’s delicious, and insanely cheap. So I grab that, come home, practice Spanish, go explore the city, or to be completely honest I’m at the beach A LOT. Getting off work at 12pm gives me a lot of time to explore the city and the surrounding areas around here are unbelievable. There’s mountains to climb, jungles to explore, and little cute towns to have coffee in, the options are endless.
So how does one travel on a budget? Did you have to save up for this?
What I usually do, when I go back home is work a lot. I grab any job possible when I’m in Chicago and use that as my savings when I travel, but I’m also getting paid to teach. It’s not much, I’m technically a volunteer still, but if I need to tap into my savings I do. I save every chance I get when I’m back home but there are so many ways to travel on a budget. I’ve seen the way some people travel and I don’t understand how they do it but it’s possible. There’s things like volunteering you can do, you can Couch Surf, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it’s a website where you stay on somebody’s couch for a couple days and it’s legit. I was scared to do it at first but it really is legit. There’s this underlying mentality that everybody on that site has where [pauses] (we get interrupted) –oh my God the power just went out! [Laughs] Damn that’s wild. But yeah, there’s that, then there’s another program called WWOOF where farms sign up and they provide you with room and board and food. You just have to work on the farm for three to four hours throughout the day, and you learn a lot about agriculture and sustainability. So I did that and it was pretty cool. Hostels are also cheap as hell, I mean there are many ways to travel on a budget. It’s very very possible.
When you first start the program do you have to have a place already lined up?
So I came to Colombia through the volunteer company Heart for Change, and they’re amazing. They get you settled. At first they set you up in an apartment complex for a month, and while you’re staying at that apartment with all the other English teachers, you’re expected to look for an apartment of your own. So me and this one girl found an apartment right on the beach.
Do you ever get homesick?
Of course. All the time. I’m so close with my family and friends that I miss everyone dearly but it’s a sacrifice that I have to make.
How do you feel when people are like, why this and not a stable job? I’m sure you’ve been asked that question.
You mean “the correct path for success”? [Laughs]. It’s extremely frustrating. I can name at least ten people off the top of my head that have asked me that question. I mean I roll my eyes at them and try my hardest to come up with a response that they would understand but they never understand, and they don’t need to understand. It’s really hard when we as Americans have this mentality as to what it is to be successful and I’m doing the complete opposite. It’s really hard and frustrating to have to explain that to people. But I’m really proud of our generation in how we’re redefining what it takes to become successful.
What has been your most memorable experience so far?
I don’t know man, I mean, I just got back from sleeping in a jungle in a tent that was 30ft off the ground. I could not believe what I was experiencing. Like they straight up tied these tents to these huge ancient trees and were like, okay you’re gonna sleep here tonight. There were monkeys crawling around, all types of birds you can imagine, man it was so cool.
Who are these people?! Are you with a guide?
[Laughs] No! It was at this hostel I was staying at. They didn’t have any more room in the hammock rooms so they were like, okay we’ll just have to upgrade you to the jungle.
So what advice do you have for those that wanna be like fuck it and just travel?
Just fucking do it!! Don’t even take a second. Make the decision, and then from there figure things out. I do recommend doing your research before going anywhere because I’ve met people who decided to go for it and then just hopped on a plane from there. They eventually figured it out but it was a lot harder for them. I like to do as much research as possible just so I can get a feel of what everything is like. Also budget correctly. Once you make that first step, everything else will fall into place.
What advice would you give to your 20 year-old self?
Honestly [laughs], take time off school. Go travel, figure yourself out, lean a little bit more about yourself and then figure out school. I think I jumped the gun on school and I wish I got the chance to know myself better and what it is I wanted to do in school. I’m a big supporter of the gap year and wish I would have done that.
What do you miss most about Chicago?
TACOS [fake cries]. No gahdamn tacos out here! I’m craving an el pastor [taco] so bad! Just one is all I need. They do have some Mexican food out here but they DO NOT know how to make it. I miss being around all that diversity and how different groups of people you wouldn’t expect all interact with one another. But yeah, I don’t know there’s so much positive creative things going on in Chicago right now. It’s home.
See where Mia is headed next by following her Instagram account for dope travel shots @mambo773.