Pursuing my goal drove me to learn a language on a low budget


Nathalia, Barry island, 20 May 2020.

Since I was a child, my parents taught me the importance of having a clear and precise goal for my life project to move forward and overcome challenges, day after day. The master's degree in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance was in my plans since I was in the first year of my undergraduate degree, so all my efforts since then were aimed at achieving that goal. A year ago, I realized I needed to improve my knowledge of English to be accepted into the master. I didn't have the budget to attend expansive language courses and also I strongly believed - and still believe - that the best approach to learn a language was to practice it every day. Well, what is a better way than to move to an English-speaking country?


On many occasions, I read personal stories of courageous young people who travelled the world doing volunteer work, and I wanted to give it a try. None of my friends had ever embarked on such journeys, but that did not stop me. I started online searching and, at first, I found travel agencies that charged a considerable sum of money to learn a language. After a few months, I finally found two platforms, Workaway and Wwoof, that offered what I was looking for: a volunteer placement. In a nutshell, volunteering is a barter of goods and services, consisting of working a maximum of 20 hours per week from Monday to Friday, in exchange for food and lodging, for an undetermined period of time. The type of work and length of stay depends on the project. On both platforms, it is necessary to pay an annual subscription, whose price depends on if the traveller is alone or with a companion, and it works globally, that is, with a one-year payment it is possible to travel everywhere in the world - for example, one could spend 3 weeks in one place, 3 months in another and 6 months somewhere else.


For my experience, I chose the platform Wwoof (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). I paid the annual subscription of 40 euros for two people, and, together with my partner, we created a profile where we presented ourselves and our skills, we posted some photos - almost like in a social network - and then we sent a couple of applications. Once we found a suitable host, a Welsh couple having a permaculture project at their house just outside Cardiff, we got in touch with them, exchanged personal information and solved all the doubts we had in mind. After two months, once we felt confident, we bought the train tickets from Italy to Wales.

Group photo, Wales Coast path, 12 January 2020.

On arrival, hosts Michelle and Christopher met us at the train station and took us to their home: Michelle is a lecturer in permaculture and sustainable living at Cardiff University, and Christopher is a documentary filmmaker for the BBC. They both lead sustainable lives and have hosted more than 235 volunteers over a period of 5 years. Volunteers’ task was mainly to help maintain the project towards 100% sustainable and responsible living. In the house, there were two more volunteers, Sam and Sally, both British, who had been collaborating on the project for almost a year. Michelle set the tasks for the four of us each day, within the agreed 20 hours a week; the jobs were very varied and always depended on the weather and the daily needs. Because we went during the winter, our duties were mainly preparing everything for the spring and the growing season, including the fertilization of the lands, among others. In my free time, I worked in a hotel/restaurant nearby, practised English, volunteered as a teacher for scout kids in Cardiff, spent time with Sam and Sally, and attended online courses in Human Rights with Coursera. During the weekends, I had the time to explore the wonderful Welsh countryside by the bike the hosts gave me for the time of stay. The hardest days were when I volunteered in the morning and went to work in the evening. However, when I felt stressed I reminded myself of my purpose.

"Motivation and passion always drive each and everything I do in my life. They help me to focus on a clear object at every stage of my life project."

Looking back now, I know that the effort was worth it: the money collected in those months of work was a great help to pay university fees and living expenses in Padova before receiving the first part of the regional scholarship. Without a doubt, one of the biggest challenges was the fear I felt before arriving at the hosts' house. Although I consider myself an adventurous woman, I was hesitant and slow to make the decision to live with people I didn't know. However, I proactively did a lot of resources: I contacted people who had similar experiences under their belt, I watched informative videos, I looked for the geolocation of the farm and ‘googlear’ the hosts. Besides that, I realized one of the reasons for the membership fee is precisely for security since all hosts are verified, and accompaniment is guaranteed before, during and after the stay.


Nathalia at the farm, Michelle and Cristopher's house, 15 april 2020.

After this experience, my habits changed radically: learning about food production processes made me more aware of the importance of consuming organic food, supporting small producers, and, above all, becoming a responsible consumer. By living with two people so committed to protecting the environment I realised how irresponsible I was in my daily life. At the same time, the whole Welsh population is very concerned about animal’s protection, and about preserving the green areas that make Wales unique; everywhere, even in the smallest villages, there are places to shop in bulk and the routine is to buy fresh food from local farmers.


I stayed in Wales for seven months and I reached my goal of learning English: I arrived with no knowledge of the language and, by the end, I was able to hold a whole conversation, feeling confident of myself. Moreover, I met inspiring people, got to know amazing places, embraced a more sustainable lifestyle, and fell in love with the Welsh culture. Michelle and Christopher helped me to finalise my application for the master, and I remember how happy and proud I was the day I received the acceptance letter from the University of Padova.

Nathalia Grijalba Robles is a first-year human rights student; she is a lawyer, a Spanish language moderator, and a researcher in children’s rights, with a special focus on sexual violence. She is currently part of the 2021 ARQUS project on climate change. Follow Nathalia's story on Instagram @nathaliagrijalba.

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