Perhaps “madness” is too strong a word to describe my first 10 days in Medellin, but it sure has been action-packed. I was getting nowhere via email and the internet in my search for a position teaching English, and so I decided to just show up. (In Latin America, business is done face-to-face). As a result, I had some pretty cool experiences but still no job offers.
I first went to a nearby smaller university, and the security guard escorted me right to the head of the English department. I was asked to email copies of my passport both to HR and to him, but days later I have heard nothing. Nonetheless, at the time I was thinking, “That first connection was easy – today is going to be my day.” Then I went to a prestigious and very large Catholic university in the center of Medellin, and Security would not let me on the grounds without my passport (the copy I usually carry would not do here as in other countries). Not even Mary Mother Anselm could have got me through that iron gate. So, I went all the way back home to get my passport, and when I returned they did a thorough passport review, took my photo, and entered all this information into their computer. After I passed through the iron gate, I was on this large campus for only a few minutes before asking directions to the language department from a man who was wearing a university shirt (perhaps housekeeping staff), and he looked up and called to another man who was walking by to see if that man knew, and that passerby just happened to be an English teacher in the language department. Then while we were walking, the English teacher told me that he got his degree at Northern Arizona University, and he promptly escorted me through the locked door at the language department directly to the Head of the language department. Wow! After a good interview, I was told that the soonest they could use me is in March, but that I would need a work visa to teach there. I sent a follow-up email to thank him for his time, but I have heard nothing since.
On to EAFIT, not only the largest university in Medellin, but the most prestigious and best paying English teaching position to be had in this town. I had contacted them several times since last June, sent several application materials to them, and sent a direct message via LinkedIn to the department Head. (I know that he viewed my LinkedIn profile because LinkedIn tells you who views your profile). As has happened to me many times in this city, people standing at bus stops helped me find the correct busses, and on the bus that would take me to EAFIT, the person who was sitting beside me made sure that I got off at the right stop. With passport in hand, I was able to get through Security, and the language center just happened to be 10 steps past Security. (We’re talking a campus the size of The Ohio State University). I tugged at the locked door that leads to Administration, and immediately someone buzzed me into the offices without asking who I was. Within 5 minutes I was sitting in front of the Administrator who I had corresponded with several times over the last 6 months. She told me that the soonest they would need me is one year from now.
Since that experience I have heard back from other universities in town who all tell me the same thing – without a work visa, I have little or no chance of teaching English at a university here. A work visa would cost around $500 (including attorney fees), would take about 6 weeks to obtain (provided that the mountain of required documents were all submitted exactly as required the first time), and the process should be started at a consulate office outside the country. The woman in whose house I am staying is an attorney, and one day she offered to give me a ride to various locales because she had business to do … and while she was doing her lawyer thing, I was able to visit different neighborhoods. We started in the morning and finished late at night, and we traipsed all over the metropolitan area and beyond as she followed up on cases that needed this jot fixed or that tittle signed, and she told me that this is the norm in Colombia … if documents are not exactly correct, you have to return to stand in line to wait to fix them, and then you might have to go the next office, and the next office, and perhaps pay fees at each office along the way, and of course everything has to be done face-to-face, and by the time you get your approval weeks or months later you are a little bit numb, surprised, and relieved. (She told me that her new law cases are scheduled to be first heard over a year from now). Of course, I don’t have to believe that all processes are difficult and take a long time here, but that is what almost everyone says.
Believe it or not, there is one local university that does not seem scared by my tourist visa, and a friend of my landlord hooked me up with an interview with the Director of the English program. Once again, my passport got me through Security, and my interview with La Directora went very well. She told me that in the off-chance that they get a surge in enrollment (made less likely by the fact that for the first time in history they are requiring each student to pay a full year of tuition before starting classes this term), they could possibly offer me a few classes to teach in February. Since I am the eternal optimist, I am believing that this will come through.
So I turned my attention to the many private language schools in town, and the reputable ones have told me a similar story – they won’t even look at me without an existing work visa and long-term commitment (and of course a work visa requires a sponsoring organization). Moreover, I have read in expat forums about the many disreputable language schools in town that send you all over town for appointments with people who don’t show up, and that even if they do give you clients, somehow they forget to pay their instructors. Again, I choose what I will believe.
As I write this article, I am sitting in the main local office of SENA, the Colombian Government’s Social Service Agency that (among many other programs) operates the much ballyhooed bilingual country-wide initiative that is supposed to make all Colombian students bilingual in the not too distant future, quite a task since the rate of English language proficiency in Colombia is one of the lowest in all of Central and South America. I’ve been sitting for over an hour together with several others who all seem to be waiting to see people who don’t show up, and so I thought that this would be a good time to turn a lemon into lemonade and write this blog article. But now that I am about to finish this post, I don’t know how much longer that I want to wait in this hot and humid office sweating with all the others waiting to see someone who doesn’t show up. In all honesty, I did not have an appointment here today, but rather than try to move this process along via email and internet, I thought that I might just show up in order to expedite the process … and so I wait.
After waiting over 1.5 hours, someone did show up to tell me to search the Spanish language SENA government website on a nearby computer to get a job code, and that once I submitted a job code and my passport information, someone might show up to meet with me. Instead of spending the rest of the afternoon in that office waiting for someone to show up, I thanked them for the information and walked out.
I never say never … but while plan A and plan B (and C, and D, and ???) are in process, I am already strategizing on next steps. Stay tuned.