Too often we fall into the trap of thinking how the odds could work against us. Little do we know, all it takes is that leap of faith into the unknown that would help us as we help others. Jelah, a Physics Major in the National University of Singapore (NUS) took such an opportunity presented to her and had it in her stride by participating in Sawasdee Thailand – a project that let her teach 3 and 5 year olds English over 6 weeks.
It was during this time in Nakhon Nayok Province that the medical physics and robotics enthusiast not only taught over forty young minds, she also found herself helping out the main teachers and other student teachers there in their daily classes. She and a fellow volunteer had much freedom in teaching English based on topics they were given for the week. In addition to translating Thai keywords into English during the regular daily classes, they had the privilege of participating in school activities like “temple visiting with students, tree planting with other schools, and Cultural Exchange Day.”
To kickstart her volunteering journey in SEA and beyond, the avid mystery novel reader chose Thailand because what appealed to her was the fact that it was the only country in the region which had never been colonized by Europeans and thus retained its culture and identity. If anything, she had envisioned an eye-opening trip and saw that it came to be true.
What Jelah had anticipated about difficulties in teaching proved to be true too during her trip. Were the kids naughty and rebelious? Not one bit. It was simply the challenge in communication due to the language barrier that was a real hurdle for her. To cope with this, she employed creative strategies that allowed her to bring across ideas and keep their attention despite the lack of a common tongue. She found that her students “made all the hard work pay off”, for they were participative and exceptionally keen learners.
On what impact Jelah felt she brought to the community, she acknowledged that while she “may have taught those kids for only six weeks”, this would have at the least sparked the children’s interest in learning. Jelah also concurred with some of their parents that learning an international language like English would open up doors that might have otherwise remained shut to them – a bonus is the fact that starting at such a young age would help them learn the language faster in the future.
Outside classroom difficulties, the guitar, bandurria, and street jazz hobbyist saw that the locals she interacted and worked with were incredibly patient and understanding of cultural and linguistic differences between them. This flavoured her interactions with them as it became fun linguistic exchanges and not obstacles where the teachers taught her basic Thai phrases and she taught them English ones in return. In more fun situations, they saw themselves using “gestures, apps and even drawings to communicate”
Jelah recounted that “what made the experience most rewarding was the people” she met. The school head and head teacher were most accommodating and blessed her with food and gave her the chance to explore beyond the confines of the military compound in which the school was located. Apart from the school head treating Jelah and her fellow volunteer “like her daughters”, it would be safe to claim that all the teachers did their utmost in making them “feel welcome and home.”
She believes that through the project, she has become “more resourceful and more adaptable to changes.” Evidently, it has helped her grow overall as a person in our increasingly homogenised world. She developed better communication skills and is equipped with “better understanding of Thai culture.” Being more keenly aware of the privileges she has, she admits not everyone is blessed with such circumstances and it makes her both grateful and desiring to reach out to help others even in the littlest way from this point forth.
The cherry on top of this amazing learning experience came when Jelah saw how appreciative the students were. While her students mostly gave her cards to bid farewell, one boy deeply touched her heart. Having known of her coming departure, he expressed his gratefulness by gifting her sweets and Thai delicacies. He added that “he wanted to be an astronaut”, and that she “should go back when he becomes one.”
Already considering going to a SEA country with AIESEC? Jelah advises that you “go to any country with an open mind, as the locals of that region may speak a different language, practice a different religion and have a vastly different culture from one’s own.” Furthermore, “a smile goes a long way and patience is key.”
A final pro tip from Jelah: “while it is not necessary to learn the language of the exchange country, it may help to learn some basic phrases and to bring some resources that may help with communication.”