This is the first article in Success Stories, an Envoy series in which our journalists write profiles of recent Hunter graduates as they begin their careers and experience life as college graduates. Success Stories will be published every other Thursday.
Breffni Neary did not always intend to be a teacher. “I started college as pre-med,” said the Macaulay student who graduated last year with a 3.97 GPA, “then considered journalism, which is why I have a Media degree.” She also majored in Early Childhood Education and studied Spanish, completing a winter study abroad program in Mar del Plata, Argentina.
These experiences, among others, led Neary to apply to Fulbright, a program that sponsors fellowships in foreign countries with the goal of improving relations between cultures. According to Hunter College’s Office of Prestigious Scholarships website, Neary is one of 41 students in the history of the college to be granted the year-long Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship; she is currently teaching English to 3-to-12-year-old students in La Rioja, Spain. To learn more about her fellowship and the path that led her to it, I recently spoke with Neary via WhatsApp, 6-hour time difference notwithstanding.
In the village of Lardero, Neary works Monday through Thursday, sometimes teaching her own lessons and other times supporting those of the head teacher. Other fellows work with high school or college students, but Neary wanted to be able to work with younger kids. “The early years are so foundational for later learning,” the Queens native said. “I want kids to like school so that love stays even when the subject matter gets difficult.” Neary also teaches her students yoga twice a week.
When she’s not teaching English or yoga, Neary enjoys jogging, hiking, visiting wineries, and eating pinchos — small snacks or appetizers similar to tapas. She participates in intercambio, a language exchange where English and Spanish language learners meet to practice speaking. “I’m conversational in Spanish now,” she said, “and I think I’ve learned more while being here than in my studies.”
Neary described La Rioja as “very very different from New York where everything is go go go.” People there actually say hello to each other, she said, and “don’t work anymore than they need to. The motto is ‘no pasa nada,’” which translates as “no worries.”
This more relaxed vibe is something Neary also noticed in the classroom setting. “I prefer the classroom environment here in Spain to that in the US,” she said, comparing her experience in Spain to that of student-teaching in New York. “The kids here are happier and there’s less stress but they’re all still doing well.” Because of this, Neary doesn’t know if she still wants to work in a school when she returns to New York.
Among alternative paths she is considering are museum education, library education and law school. “I’m not 100 percent sure what I’m going to do,” said Neary, “but I’m not worried. I’ll figure something out.”
Aside from her major and knowledge of Spanish, other experiences that prepared Neary for her Fulbright fellowship include volunteering with Peer Health Exchange, an organization that trains college students to teach high schoolers about health. In her junior year, she worked with one of her professors as a research assistant, which involved working in preschool classrooms in East Harlem. When applying to Fulbright, she said, “It’s also about how something is written, and the Office of Prestigious Scholarships definitely helped with that.”
Looking back on her college career, Neary encourages students to “join clubs — I wish I had. Also, try to avoid the sushi in the cafeteria.”