Sara Mokhtari-Fox is currently teaching English in Cusco, Perú, but she got her first taste of Latin America through classes with ECELA in both Lima and Cusco. Sara shares her heartfelt advice with us while keeping a good sense of humor about the positive aspects—and tearful challenges—of learning a new language in a program abroad.
After Sara Mokhtari-Fox graduated from the University of California in 2011, she knew she wasn’t done learning. She always wanted to study abroad, but unlike her brother, she never got the opportunity during her college years. Instead, she decided to do it afterwards.
Because she wanted to learn Spanish and was interested in Incan culture, Sara set her sights on Latin America. She learned about ECELA Spanish at a study abroad fair, and soon realized it was exactly what she wanted to do. Today, Sara is a teacher who lives and works in a small Peruvian town. Learn how she made the leap from California college grad to bilingual citizen of the world, all in just a few life-changing years.
Learning Spanish in Cusco
Sara also considered Argentina and Chile, but chose Peru for its low cost of living and Incan influences. She started her learning experience in Lima, taking classes in the city for a month before moving onto a smaller town called Cusco. It was here that Sara got the “genuine Latin American experience” she wanted, including streets with unpronounceable Quechuan names and a home stay with a local family.
Sara studied Spanish in high school, but was too nervous and self-conscious to practice outside the classroom. In Peru, she had no choice but to speak the local language. As she enjoyed nightly dinners and challenging beginner classes, she found the language got easier and easier, until she was finally comfortable speaking it.
From Student to Teacher
After Sara returned to the U.S. in 2011, she felt the pull of the “travel bug” and decided to return to Latin America for a year of backpacking. Ultimately, her journey took her back to Cusco, where she stayed for more than three months. One of her former professors even hired her to work in his café, allowing her to experience Peru for the first time as a resident, rather than a student or tourist.
In December 2014, Sara moved to Cusco for good. She now teaches English, allowing her to tap into her previous work with high schoolers in California. After just a few months, she was promoted to director. Sara describes her career as a “cool experience” that allows her to explore more of a country she loves.
Highlights of Life in Peru
Since moving to Peru, Sara has visited Machu Picchu and gone on an Incan “jungle trek” that introduced her to her favorite spot in the country: the natural hot springs of Santa Teresa. Here, warm pools and beautiful waterfalls offer relaxation right in the heart of the Peruvian jungle.
Sara also recommends an annual event that’s a “must” for visitors. Every July, the Festival of Paucartambo brings days of parades, dancing, masks, and more to Cusco’s streets. The Andean tradition also includes a visit to Tres Cruces, a mountaintop outlook with a stunning view of the sunrise from above the clouds.
A New Worldview
Sara has learned a new language and embarked on a new teaching career, but her most important lesson didn’t come from a classroom. As she immersed herself in Peruvian culture, she realized it was the complete opposite of the fast-paced United States. Now, she hopes to emulate the way Latin Americans live.
While Americans spend their weekends stressing about work, for example, Sara noticed that Latin Americans put their “all” into the present moment instead. From long lunch breaks to quality time with family and friends, they value each experience instead of constantly planning the next one. This approach impressed her so much that she made Peru her new home.
Suggestions for Newcomers
Sara thinks programs like ECELA Spanish have something for everyone. “If you think you’re too shy, it will help you open up,” she explained, adding that it will also “put you in your place” if you’re overly confident. She certainly learned this firsthand during her first few months in Peru, when frustration over forgotten conjugations brought her to tears more than once.
Today, Sara laughs about these early struggles and savors the relationships she formed during that time. She even keeps in touch with the family who hosted her and the teachers who led her small, intense Spanish classes.
00:00 – Sara’s Introduction
00:42 – Cutting university ties
1:07 – ECELA Speaks to Sara
01:40 – A country true to its ancestry
2:11 – Lima & Cusco’s differences
2:37 – Foodie Alert!
2:50 – Cusco as a cultural empire
3:40 – Avoiding awkward homestay dinnertime
5:06 – Cusco family option
5:16 – Crying in básico Spanish class
6:16 – When the crying ceases
7:25 – Cutting USA career ties
8:00 – Transitioning from traveler to resident
9:12 – Insider hot springs location
9:51 – Authentic Peruvian Festival: Paucartambo
10:34 – Insider ethereal sunrise location
11:03 – Maintaining ECELA connections
12:27 – Peru’s most important lesson
13:00 – Cutting ties with a USA mentality
13:43 – Too shy? Too confident? Is Spanish immersion abroad for you?