Westminster Alum’s Opportunity for Cultural Exchange as a Fulbright

Tristan Palola sits with the ancient Spanish town of Toledo in the behind him.

November 8, 2021

by Vanessa Eveleth (’23)

Over the course of a single year, the Fulbright Program offers roughly 8,000 students, teachers, artists, researchers, and professionals from 160 countries (including the United States) a platform to study, teach, and conduct research throughout the global world with the hopes of stimulating cultural exchange and mutual understanding. Former Fulbrighters range from Nobel Prize awardees, former and current heads of state/government, Pulitzer Prize recipients, and MacArthur Foundation Fellows—as well as Westminster College alums.

Outstanding Graduating Senior recipient Tristan Palola (’18) is one such Westminster alum. Tristan is an exemplification of a Fulbright scholar, majoring in Spanish and Latin American studies with a double minor in sociology and political science. A year after graduation, Tristan also obtained his TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate while working as a university English professor in Medellín, Colombia. It was at this point, September 2019, that Tristan applied to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program as an English Teaching Assistant in Spain. “I applied because I wanted to see if I wanted to have a career in teaching,” Tristan says. For choosing Spain in particular, Tristan adds that he has spent a lot of time in Latin America.

Westminster students are required to study abroad as part of the Spanish and Latin American studies degree. Tristan studied at Universidad Autonoma de Bucaramanga during his junior year’s fall semester in Bucaramanga, Colombia. “I was a student in Spanish and Latin American studies, but I never really got to know Spain,” Tristan says. “There’s so much you can read, learn, and pick up through reading literature and learning from experts. But there’s nothing that can replace actually being present there.”

And being present in Spain or Latin America in general, requires a certain degree of fluency in Spanish—which Tristan has thanks to Westminster’s courses and his time in Colombia. “Grammar and pronunciations are really hard to teach; it’s also redundant and can be very boring for students,” Tristan says. But learning about the culture through literature and Latin American artists helps maintain interest—something that the Westminster Spanish program does well.

Tristan spent the first 6 months of 2021 in Carabanchel, Madrid, Spain providing similar infrastructure of the English language at IES Francisco Ayala high school for students aged 12–18. COVID-19—or the elephant in the room as Tristan prefaced it—created unique situations as a teacher.  For one, group or pair work was out of the question. “The students had to have masks on the entire time, so they couldn’t see my face or facial expressions. They could only see my eyes and couldn’t tell if I was happy or how I was reacting,” Tristan says.

Despite the circumstance, Tristan tried to teach the students as best he could. Proactivity and reaching out for support are two skills that helped him in Spain. “Westminster taught me how to be proactive by trying to find the solution to something quickly and efficiently,” Tristan says. “Westminster also taught me how to ask for help and advice. I think a lot of people are embarrassed to reach out. In the teaching realm, people think they need to know everything and have everything perfect.” But, asking people for their tricks, methods, and resources is important. “Learn everyone’s technique,” Tristan surmises.

Tristan’s own teaching style was heavily influenced by Westminster faculty. “I would sometimes channel some of the best professors I ever had and pretend I was like them in my teaching,” Tristan explains. A few of those professors were Deyanira Ariza-Velasco, Mark Rubinfeld, Leonardo Figueroa-Helland, and Giancarlo Panagia. “I remember a lot of them are very good at pausing and reading the room, asking ‘does that make sense—what I just said?’ That teaching model is what I try to do.”

For his supplemental project, part of the Fulbright requirements, Tristan organized and conducted a book club for students and faculty at IES Francisco Ayala. Around 25 students and 6 faculty participated in the 1-hour book sessions every other week. “I think pretty much every student got something out of it,” Tristan says. “It was pretty successful.” The 50 books ordered for the club were commissioned under the Fulbright program. “The books are the property of the school now,” Tristan explains. “It’s kind of Fulbright’s gift to the student at IES Francisco Ayala.”

Tristan says that getting more professional experience—particularly working across cultures—is an accomplishment from teaching in Spain. “I know it’s a cliché kind of saying, but it really is true,” he says. An example of learning how to operate across cultures was Spain’s siesta. Meaning “midday rest,” siesta is a time set aside for naps or relaxing and occurs roughly between 2–5:00 p.m. “American society is different,” Tristan says. “Most people are in the office from 9 to 5. In Spain, the pace of life is a little more relaxed and slower.” Tristan says he learned how to go with the flow and manage the less frantic work and lifestyle.

“It’s a cool learning experience to see how people are, you’re seeing a very deep part of society,” Tristan says. “It doesn’t feel as superficial as visiting a place and taking a picture, then getting on a plane, and coming back to the United States. You know, you’re actually in the thick of it and you’re in line with other people, other Spaniards just doing basic things.”