Looking back on my time abroad
The last three weeks in Cambodia went by quicker than I thought they would. I remember first getting here and being excited about finally settling in . Now, I’m ready to leave. I’m ready to see my family and my friends back home. Especially, my little sister. My mom says she’s always asking about me and when I’ll be returning home. I miss both of them tremendously.
The last few weeks of teaching consisted of teaching the college students adverbs, adjectives, verbs, sentence structure, prepositions, etc. This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
At the Spitler Primary School, I’d come in with no set plan, teaching colors, animals, fruits, teaching them how to spell all of the above and playing games with them. With the college students, I’d do my best to prepare but felt that I was never qualified for this. I’ve never taught anything and I’m not in school for education, so I always felt like they’d understand if I didn’t always have my things together. I’d walk in, take out my orange folder filled with lesson plans, look over the lessons and wing it. Make it my own. Give as many examples as I could. Sometimes they’d look at me with blank stares or look confused and other times they’d whelp frustrated “yes, teacher’s” because they already knew what I was trying to teach them. I realized very early that my students were smart and that the lesson plans almost condescended them. They knew these things so I had to find new ways to keep them entertained, engaged and find ways to gauge just how much they knew.
Everyone was at a different level. Some barely spoke English and others could hold conversations. This became evident when I’d have them go up to the board and or have them read something or answer a question. This made me appreciate teachers and professors a lot more. It may look easy but going up to the front of a class and teaching something especially something difficult is anything but easy. Some students, like in the U.S., would be talking, texting or just simply off task. I told them on multiple occasions that if they didn’t want to be there, why were they. If they wanted to sleep or text why come to class, especially to one that was optional. In the U.S., attendance amounts is based upon whether attendance is mandatory or not. If it’s optional, I’d said 1/3 of the class would actually show up consistently. The other 2/3 show up for mandatory quizzes and exams.
This sometimes made it hard to want to come to class and teach. I was volunteering, meaning that this too for me was optional but what kept me engaged and coming, was seeing the students that did care learn and smile when they had light bulb moments. It’s what kept me coming back and what still keeps me coming back.
The hours are rough. Having Spitler School either from 9-11 am or 2-4 pm and the college from 12-1 pm and then from 5-6 pm, wasn’t easy. There were days I’d dread wanting to go in or having to wake up from an afternoon nap just to go back to the school. I wanted to review everything in the book and then get to the fun stuff; get to writing and talking, which is what is most important, in my opinion.
We went from devoting class to adjectives and homonyms to writing short paragraphs on prompts I came up with, practicing constructing sentences and talking out loud in class. I think they prefer it this way. I love to see students with those “please don’t pick me faces.” I have some who love getting critiqued and who love going up to the board and others who would rather sit in class the entire hour without making a peep. Those, I’ll never understand. Why sit in a class just jotting down notes and not participating or wanting to express yourself?
I still love each of them. I’ve grown to love each of them. I feel like teaching them, I’ve learned a little about them each and every day. They’re all pretty modest, conservative, but all have different dreams, traveling plans, families, lives and trials and tribulations. They’re not much different from me, from us.
June 1st Harry wanted us to go to the villages and see where some of our students lived and how they were living. He told us that Western culture and the lives we live in the West are far from reality. The reality is: People are making what we make in a month in an entire year working way more hours. Each of the countries we’ve been to, the people are hardworking, punctual and make no excuses. It’s almost seems like they don’t believe in holidays or breaks, working 4 a.m. to 4 a.m., while we find any excuse to take a day off.
We rode tuk tuks to the villages. I went with three of my students, two girls and one boy. On our way there, we talked about future plans, our lives, likes and dislikes and talked about things a long the way.
One of my students told me how he only sees his parents like once a month or once every few months because he lives so far away and it’d be hard and expensive to get home. I asked him if he was home sick and he said that at times he was but that he was almost done with school (his class graduates in two months) and that afterwards, he gets to go back home to teach at a local school. I told him I admired him for doing this, for going to school, being far away from home and doing something for his family. I have yet to be that strong, I feel. This, being on the trip, is the fist time I feel like I’m doing something on my own but barely because Andrea was here.
We talked about traveling and about plans after graduation and I told them of my dream to backpack for about a year. I asked them about beaches and they looked at me quite confused. I went on Instagram and showed them a picture of a beach I found under #beach and they were in complete shock. They said they never saw anything like it. I couldn’t believe this. I guess it’s hard to believe because I live so close to beaches but it saddened me that not everyone has the chance to see all the world has to offer; there are so many beautiful treasures to see and explore and I want everyone to get the opportunity to see them one day.
Upon visiting their villages, it was nothing like I expected. Harry said that the cities we were staying in weren’t reality but I also felt like this wasn’t reality either. This seemed like a village for the middle class. The houses were big and on stilts. Cooking and hanging out was done downstairs. We arrived and we were treated like royalty. They cooked for us. I was expecting just some rice and some sort of meat platter but they cooked a feast. Not just rice but beef, fish and chicken plates, soup, salad, etc. They even had day beds for after-lunch siestas.
This wasn’t reality.
On the way to the village, my student pointed to her old high school and about 10 miles later or so, we were at her house. I was shocked. She went to school, which was very far for her, every single day with no complaints and I dreaded taking the bus to FIU before getting my car or having to walk the seven blocks when I was in high school.
Teaching at the college has made me appreciate education, teachers and pretty much everything I have. When I walk in, they bow to say hello and thank me on my way out. They’re so appreciative and I’ve learned I should be more like them.
Teaching at the Spitler School was less structured. We were pretty much free to do what we wanted with our students, which I enjoyed.
I befriended two of my students, Channia and Chreb. Every time they saw me they’d run up to me and hug me and when I wasn’t there, they’d ask for me. Harry changed the scheduling so that we would go in every other day. We’d switch. One group would go one day and the other, the next.
The days I wouldn’t come in, I’d usually be sleeping, which I now feel guilty about. I feel as though I should’ve been there more to answer their questions, to teach them more.
I taught them their colors, the body parts, numbers, etc., but still feel like there was so much more to cover.
Yesterday was my last day with them.
Coincidentally, Chreb asked me when I’d be leaving before I even had the chance to say anything. I told her that today was my last day and she looked heartbroken. It broke my own heart looking at her.
I felt the tears coming but fought the urge to cry.
I was going to miss them. It’s saddening to know that I may ever see them again, that I wouldn’t hear from them again and about how they’re doing.
I hope that they’re successful and amount to everything they said they want to be. Hopefully, one day they do become doctors.
The night before my last day at Spitler, I decided to buy all of us matching bracelets, almost like friendship bracelets so that they remember me and our time together.
I know I’ll never forget them.
They’ll never know just how much of an impact they had in my life. They really opened my eyes to what’s important. Children are our future and we need to invest in them more.
Saying goodbye was hard.
We hugged for the last time and they ran, wearing their bracelets, to see me leave off in that white van one last time. I told them when I was leaving that I was going to miss them and that I knew they’d grow up to be great. I just have a hunch they will.
On March 27, Andrea and I started volunteering at Build Your Future Today or BFT. It was the week before International Children’s Day, a day to celebrate youth worldwide.
They wanted us to choreograph a dance to “Happy” by Pharell that they’d be performing on Children’s Day in front of everyone.
BFT was a breath of fresh air. It was fun. It was a time to put our English books away and laugh, dance and smile.
BFT serves as a program for kids; one that provides them with a home, support, access to healthcare and all of the above when they have none. BFT, to me, is in place to not only build those futures but also protect them so that it’s possible for them to actually have one.
We had a group of 11 kids of all ages, from as little as 5 to about 17, who wanted to learn the dance. I loved how when you taught them something new they’d be frustrated when they couldn’t get a dance move and be joyful when they could. We taught them for about two hours from Wednesday to Friday and pretty soon it was show time.
Monday, we had to be there early. At around 7 a.m. The entire celebration would last a few hours. We were able to take pictures of the kids and see a few of them perform before we left but didn’t get to see them perform the dance we taught them because that day, we were going out to the villages with our college students.
During our time at BFT, we became close to students volunteers from Virginia. They shared common interests, had similar thoughts and trials and tribulations. They understood what we were going through. They were English teachers too and understood how difficult and frustrating it was. We started going out pretty much every day. We became inseparable. We even went out to the villages with them one day.
BFT will go out to nearby villages and help those who are sickly and ill. Likewise, they get to do health presentations, teaching kids and their families about health care and what they can do like washing their hands with soap and cutting their nails. Andrea and I believed our experience wouldn’t be complete without going to the villages with BFT and we were right.
Tuesday, June 9th we woke up early and got on a truck headed to a village about an hour away. We stopped for breakfast, which was noodle soup and coffee that day.
We made our way to the village on very bumpy roads. When we got to the beginning of the village, the chief asked for donations for a bridge and community center they wanted to build that would cost about $2000. I thought to myself: “why isn’t the government doing something about this?” Why wouldn’t the government do this for their people especially if it’s for their betterment? It just made no sense but it made me admire them because although they weren’t getting the help they needed, they still chose to do something about it rather than waiting around for someone to do it for them and that was admirable.
That day, we met a man who had a tumor on his foot that had been growing over the course of three years and did what we could to treat him and gave him pain medicine. He was to be taken to a hospital in Phnom Penh the next day.
We also visited a woman who had a two-week-old baby who wasn’t eating well and was very weak and would even stop breathing at times. The mother wasn’t eating well either and that was translating to the baby. The baby would only feed about four times a day when it should’ve been feeding once every two hours.
There was also someone around my age with really bad burns from a motorbike accident that came to see us and a child with scabies whose mother had applied the medication on wrong on his genitals that were now inflamed.
It upset me to see how poor they were. It upset me that they were illiterate and uneducated. It made me mad that they didn’t have access to healthcare and made me even more angry that the hospitals were so far away. They barely even had clean water. They were cooking on dirt. Flies were everywhere.
It just isn’t fair. No one should have to live like this. No one should have to go through something like this, especially not someone with a newborn baby. It seemed to me that the mother, just like everyone else at that village, was doing all she could, the best she could but without the knowledge, money and resources, it was hard to do anything about it.
I’m thankful for BFT because they make a difference in their lives and give them a fighting chance but more of us need to do the same. I’m thankful for BFT because they care like many of us need to.
I feel blessed to have access to these things that they yearn for. Compared to the villagers, I guess I’d be considered rich. I live in a nice duplex, have a car, a job, I go to school, I have access to healthcare, know English. But in the U.S., I’m anything but.
My family has been living on welfare my entire life. We live paycheck to paycheck.
My mom can barely afford to support us and cannot afford my college education. We have one car that we share.
When I’m at school, she and my little sister ride the bus to get around. Life isn’t as sweet as it seems but even still, I feel blessed and should appreciate all the things I have and all the opportunities I’ve been given. I should never forget this.
Overall, my time away from home has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I must admit this journey wasn’t always laughs and giggles. There were times of frustration, anger, annoyance, crankiness from being awake too early a long with the laughs and smiles.
My experience is one I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.
I chose this trip because I thought that without this opportunity, there was a slim chance I’d ever get to see these countries again. I chose this study abroad because it was something different, it was a way for me to get out of my comfort zone by eating new things, meeting new people and making lasting friendships, seeing new things on my own and a way for me to understand the world we live in a little better. This trip has done that and so much more.
Not only did I try new foods but I also learned different languages along the way and when I couldn’t understand something, I’d use body language to communicate.
Communicating with others, getting to hear their opinions, beliefs and values, to me, is very important. I love communicating with others and hearing their stories; I guess that’s why I’m a communications major. Here, it’s been harder to do so but you don’t always need words to figure out something. Their faces told the stories. Their livelihoods did as well.
Being here, I’ve realized my purpose. Working with BFT, at the schools and visiting the temples, waterfalls, and other national treasures, seeing the people’s daily struggles to achieve their dreams and aspirations, I’ve realized my job is to share these stories.
These countries, although underdeveloped from a Western standpoint, have a lot to offer and a lot to share. Looking at some of these temples and pagodas, I was in awe at how beautiful everything was. I couldn’t believe that people made these gems with their very own hands. It made me proud to know that as a civilization, we are capable of great things but visiting the war museums, killing fields and remembrance centers, hearing the stories of pain, anger, and murder, I was on the contrary, disappointed in us as a human race because just like we were capable of beauty and construction, we were also capable of horror and destruction.
We have a long way to go as people. We’re not where we need to be yet. There’s no reason for war or murder or hurting others. We should be building, learning from one another, empowering one another and making things better. There’s no reason why so many should not have food or access to education and health care while few of us do. I don’t believe in communism but I do believe in fairness and equality and being given a chance at survival. A chance at living a long, healthy and fulfilling life.
This trip has taught me a lot. It’s taught me that I have my work cut out for me if I want to make a difference, but it’s also shown me where I could start. I was blessed with opportunities and it’s my responsibility to really do something with these opportunities to make a change. I know nothing will happen overnight but it’s evident that something must be done and today, my journey not only ends but also begins.