Dancing was hardly anything new for Hayley Kropog, but teaching it on other continents to students who don’t speak English was.
The Livingston Parish native from the Springfield-Albany area spent the summer as an international dance instructor on the heels of a two-year stint as captain of the Tiger Girls dance team at LSU.
While teaching in Korea, she also learned she had been named University Medalist of LSU’s Summer 2012 Graduating Class.
“That was so surreal and exciting,” she said. “Being halfway around the world and finding that out was just really cool.”
When asked about her travels, Kropog smiled wide and lifted her shoulders to her chin, an expression belonging to a rare combination of humility and pride that Kropog wears as plainly as the lettering on her LSU sweatshirt.
Shortly after graduating with a degree in broadcast journalism from the Manship School of Mass Communication in May, she received an offer to teach during the summer.
“My first trip was to Dusseldorf, Germany,” Kropog said, “and it was very nerve racking going into a situation for the first time where the dancers you’re teaching don’t speak your language.”
Kropog said she has been dancing since she was about 3 or 4 years old, and worked for Universal Dance Association — the company that offered her the opportunity to teach internationally — before her freshman year of college.
But teaching and participating in foreign cultures not only proved to be a challenge, but taught her a lot about herself, she said.
“It was very frightening at first, because you go into a room filled with a hundred kids and you start speaking, and then you get blank faces and say, ‘Okay, now what?’ ” Kropog said. “So you just kind of have to evaluate, and I think that it definitely made be a better teacher, a better dancer and a better person.”
Her next assignment was in Ecuador, where her first job was to teach a technique class to a group of 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds who spoke no English.
“They got a kick out of trying to teach me how to say ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Spanish,” she said. “I got laughed at a lot by 5 year olds.”
Learning to “figure it out” professionally and creatively when options seem limited was something Kropog said made her a better teacher and better learner.
“Hayley was amazing with the kids,” said Laine Blazevich, who taught with her in Ecuador.
“She was able to teach the kids things that they had never heard of or tried before,” he said, calling her “one of the more professional teachers I have had the pleasure of working alongside.”
“After that was South Korea,” Kropog said. There, she couldn’t rely on what she remembered from high school Spanish lessons to get by with her students.
“We were able to just have fun with them, use different body language, use a game of charades to teach them and let them learn,” Kropog said.
Kropog paused and smiled as if watching a memory replay.
“I learned how to say ‘thank you’ in Korean,” she said. Every time she said it, “the kids giggled and thought it was so cool. They felt really accomplished that they taught us something.”
But teaching Team Korea, the older, advanced team that competes in the International Cheerleading Union’s annual event in Disney World, was a different kind of challenge, Kropog said.
“This was on a different level, so you had to figure out ways to get into their heads; things like ‘don’t give up,’ ‘stay determined,’ ‘persevere,” she said.
So Kropog based her methods on community as well as communication.
“As a leader, I always wanted to make sure that I was really approachable and open,” she said. “I was the leader in title, but I wanted to make sure that everybody was collaborating. I wasn’t any higher authority. We were all a team working together.”
Kropog said the communication barriers made her more passionate about the communications field.
She said she became Facebook friends with the team and still communicates with the dancers as best as she can with online translators.
Kropog’s next challenge is to start a public relations corporate communications program at Georgetown University in Washington DC beginning in January.
As she takes that step, she looks back at the international teaching experience, including the language difficulties, as another step in her education.
“When you’re in college, it might not be clear to you yet what you want to do, and it wasn’t even for me, and I was a very focused, driven person, very determined; obviously a perfectionist,” she said. “I wanted to be perfect with my grade and everything, but I say just take advantage of every single opportunity.”
“It’s like going to the gym,” she said. “Everyone complains at first, but once you leave, you never regret having gone. You’re never going to look back and say ‘Wow, I wish I didn’t try so hard.’ ”