“Yes, I was the the only white person and that put me on display, but the town also protected me as well, I was one of them,” says Michael Owen.
The 30-year-old West Liberty graduate just spent two years teaching English in Colombia, starting with the Peace Corps in 2014.
After a three-month hiatus in the United States, Owen is on his way back. This time he has his own 20-unit English curriculum geared towards older students and adults.
“It’s more than just teaching them English, it’s also me bringing my American culture to them,” he says. “I’m from a small town in Iowa, I don’t have millions of dollars.”
Just like West Liberty has preconceived notions about Columbia, so to do small towns in Colombia have preconceived notions about Americans.
And yet, in the end, all people are very much the same. This is one of the biggest lessons Owen has learned during his time in the South American country.
“Growing up in West Liberty helped prepare me for what small towns are like everywhere, everyone knows everything that you’re doing,” he says.
“Now, being the only white person in the community, everyone really knows what you’re doing,” he adds about his first few months in Colombia.
On one particular evening in 2014 Owen was bussing back from the large city of Barranquilla to the much smaller municipality of Repelón, where he was stationed.
He was robbed on that bus, but within minutes after getting home the community was behind him. From support to food, in five short months he was one of their own.
“That just reaffirmed I was in the right place,” he says. “People I didn’t even know came up to me to make sure I was ok.”
Michael Owen, the son of Bob and Geri Owen, joined the Peace Corps in 2014. The 2005 WLHS graduate spent years studying the Spanish language beforehand.
This was before the dual language program was instituted in the West Liberty Community School District, a program which now covers grades kindergarten through 12th.
Owen also spent a semester studying abroad in Spain while he attended the University of Northern Iowa. Afterwards he graduated with majors in Social Studies and Spanish.
So what does young graduate with a love for foreign language do when school is done and the real world begins to beckon?
He emerges himself in Spanish and Colombian culture of course.
“This Peace Corps experience was probably my first, in-depth, full immersion,” he says. “Even though I studied abroad in Spain I had lots of colleagues there.”
By that he means several other English speakers were on that trip to Spain, giving him an invisible English safety net.
Not true once he was in Colombia through the Peace Corps. He was by himself with no other native English speakers for miles.
At least, that’s how it may have felt until that day on the bus when he realized he may have been the only native English speaker, but he was definitely not by himself.
Many readers will remember that guerrilla warfare dominated news coverage of Colombia through the 1990s, although the conflict can be dated back to the 1950s.
As the Hubble Space telescope orbited the earth, the World Wide Web gained popularity and Dolly the Sheep shocked us in the north, Colombia was recovering from a 10 year civil war known as La Violencia.
Armed conflict between the government and guerrilla groups such as FARC, ELN, EPL, MAQL, PRT, CRS and M-19 intensified in the 1990s.
Fortunately, by 1994 five of the major seven independent factions demobilized after peace negotiations. It would take another 20 years before all the pieces fell together.
On Nov. 24, 2016, the combined forces of FARC-EP and the government of Colombia came to a peace deal approved by the public, negotiated in Havana, Cuba.
“The conflict is done, peace is coming and the United Nations is going to come in and de-arm the FARC,” says Owen, “The longest running civil war in the Western Hemisphere is finished.”
Of course, it’s never going to be quite that easy. But, part of the reason the Peace Corps, including Owen, entered Colombia was to help smooth the transition.
At the time Owen and several others were TEL (Teaching English for Livelihoods) volunteers with the Peace Corps, stationed along the Caribbean Coast.
Their goal was/is to bring English to Colombia, since the language is used used world wide for business, communication and travel.
Owen created community classes, were he taught English to around 25 older students every day of the week for a good two years.
“When I started my second class I was trying to figure what I taught the first time around,” he says. “I figured I might as well type this all up and leave it for future groups, that way they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.”
“So I ended up sharing the curriculum with my country director and she proceeded to publish it and make it a bigger deal than I intended it to be,” Owen adds flatly.
This isn’t a backdoor brag either, as Owen tells the story he still sounds a little bit shocked by just how well his vocabulary-based lesson program was accepted.
Owen’s curriculum has been adopted by Peace Corps Colombia, now used as the main model for community classes across the country.
So, while Colombian culture has been imprinted on him, Owen is imprinting a bit of American culture back. It goes both ways.
Diving deeper into the
heart of nation
Michael Owen basically created a job for himself with that curriculum, now he’s returning to Colombia in 2017 to help spread it, thanks to the Maureen Orth Foundation.
Orth was one of the first volunteers sent to Colombia by President Kennedy when the Peace Corps began in the 1960s.
One of her accomplishments was establishing schools in Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia and capital of the department (state) of Antioquia.
Owen found himself with the foundation after an “Immersion Week” near the end of his first visit to Colombia. Now he is no longer with the Peace Corps, but the foundation.
Around 45 minutes outside of the large and bustling Medellin is El Carmen de Viboral, where Owen will be stationed until November 2017, another small town.
“In your first year of Peace Corps you don’t really get a lot done, there’s a lot of trial-and-error,” he says. “I look at this as my chance to make a difference happen.”
A lot of the Peace Corps are still stationed alongside the western side of the country. However, help of all kinds is slowly moving inward to the towns that were once ruled by conflict.
El Carmen is one such community.
You have to remember, the peace deal is new. While we celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States last November the revised deal finally came to fruition in Colombia.
In that respect, Owen is heading deeper into the country to teach English to territories that are just beginning the long struggle to rebuild themselves.
“There were a lot of communities in the interior and the Amazon region of Colombia that were very affected, some were wiped out,” he says.
So is it safe?
While there were flare ups of violence during his first visit, and there probably will be more in the years to come, the simple fact is that Colombia reached out to the Peace Corps for help.
Thanks to the peace deal conditions are much better now than they have been for the past 50 years, at least according to Owen.
Even tensions with Colombia’s neighbor Venezuela have died down for the time being.
Nothing is guaranteed, Owen realizes this. But, he’s on his way back, curriculum in hand, to another small community and a hope to keep spreading English.
“The area that I’m going was affected by the conflict, and I’m interested in seeing how the people are rebuilding,” he says. “For me, to travel is to make myself better.”
This is also why he wants to spread the correct image of America. Not because he’s overly proud of his nation, but because if Colombia is going to accept help in the future it needs a positive image of its helpers.
Hopefully America can be a positive part of that change. During tumultuous times, it’s individuals like Owen that break through popular lies and misbeliefs.
It’s not just about teaching English, it’s about sending a message.
Colombian curriculumJacob Lane · Wednesday, February 1, 2017