As we prepare to check out of our hotel and head to the airport for our long journey home, I am filled with gratitude that I could spend this time with the people on this trip. This Encompass SE Asia trip has been one of the most rewarding teaching experiences of my career. The aspect of teaching that is most often overlooked is that teaching IS learning. Being able to have long, heart-felt conversations with students about some of the difficult subjects we encountered along the way re-energized my passion for teaching and learning in a way that is hard to do in a typical classroom experience. Certainly, the foundations laid for students in their prior educational experiences set them up to be able to take a more nuanced perspective on the issues we explored on the trip. However, it is in the application of this knowledge in real-world settings, which are messy and not so clear cut, is really where I have been able to see the students’ passion erupt.
Dr. Datta and I tried to think through an itinerary that would present some of the issues related to NGO-work in relief in meaningful ways. We started in Bangkok, a city full of glitz and glamour alongside stark poverty. Students got a private tour of Wat Arun by Mr. Hartanto followed by an afternoon at his Community Learning Center where he supports young ladies from Issaan in their nursing assistant program. Students heard some of the difficult stories of these remarkable young women first-hand, and Mr. Hartanto’s Buddhist-centered approach to discipline and academic rigor. What followed was a several day discussion of the issues interspersed between site-seeing and immersion into Bangkok city life.
A visit to the UN with Sebastian Boll was eye opening for all of us, and students then got a birds eye view of development and human trafficking issues. Everyone asked great questions and we had a nice discussion around his challenges with developing and maintaining collaboration with other NGOs and stakeholders. Plus, a tour of the UNDP offices and a great lunch topped off the visit. As we reflected at the end of our trip, we all noted how interesting that day was, and how we all had a better idea of what it would be like to work there.
In Chiang Rai, we had several moments of personal connection that gave us unique perspective on living in Northern Thailand. Spending the day with Aor and Au, which included shopping in the market, cooking in their kitchen, visiting a local pagoda and hanging out in their yard, was a nice and relaxing way to get to know people. That day can be summed up by lots of laughing and great conversation. Our conversations as a group for the rest of the trip almost always involved coming back to discuss Aor’s story, Au’s hilarious sense of humor and the unique opportunity to just ‘hang out’ with local people.
Two days with Freedom Story in Chiang Rai gave us ‘up close and personal’ moments, as well. The first evening was spent socializing with university students who receive scholarships from Freedom Story. We played Charades as well as some other games that were a bit confusing to us. We all jumped right in, being silly and having fun. Then we finished the evening playing Uno and Dominos with the students before returning to our hotel. The next day, we had a great meeting with Lucy from Freedom Story, discussing and brainstorming ways to streamline their data collection, and monitoring/evaluation instruments. Several students took to this process very naturally and even talked about ways they could help in the future. This collaboration will likely continue into the future. We ended the day by playing fun games, basketball and jumping on the trampoline with the children.
Off to Cambodia, we made it to our hotel late in the evening. The next two days were spent exploring the amazing temples of Siem Reap, including Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, Ta Prohm and Bayon. The heat was overwhelming at times, but the sites were stunning.
Our final NGO site visit was at Love Without Boundaries’ Poipet programs along the Thai Border. We went to the Rangsei School site first, and arrived just as the children were finishing their lunch. We had some time to play and chat with the kids and the staff. After the students rang the school bell (a car wheel) and the students went back to class, we moved on to visit the Ary government school site and the Sokhem site. We saw the children in their classes, and the new 2nd floor of the school. Students were surprised to learn how close we were to the Thai border.
Next we went down to the Casino area of Poipet to see the dramatic difference between village life and the tourist trap of Poipet. As we drove back to Siem Reap, we had powerful conversations about foreign investment in the region, the haves and have nots of Cambodia, and the role of NGOs in rural areas. Students are clearly developing nuanced perspectives on these issues that take into account the multifaceted issues we encountered.
As we now prepare for our travel home, I fully expect that we all will reflect on these experiences for the long term and continue to develop our perspectives and consider ways to contribute in our own unique ways.