As recipients of a Judith Oliver Brown Memorial Award, classmates Aysia Smith and Emma Barden traveled to Laos and Thailand with Growth International Volunteer Excursions (GIVE) for their annual Field Period®. GIVE is a Seattle-based volunteer organization that unites international volunteering with adventure travel to create a meaningful volunteer experience abroad.
Aysia, an early childhood/special education major with a global concentration and Emma, an art and design major, aided the local communities with myriad activities. They assisted in building a water tower which will provide not just clean water—but readily available water through the dry season—painting fences at a bear sanctuary, creating a sanitary place to prepare food, and teaching English to school children.
Truly Making a Difference
“When I enrolled in Keuka College, I knew I wanted to spend time volunteering in Asia because their culture of helping each other is fascinating,” says Aysia. “I have always loved volunteering, but this was different as I could actually see the impact I was making as I worked.”
“You get such a different perspective from volunteering rather than going to a country for leisure. By volunteering, you know you’re helping those in need, but the need in Laos and Thailand was a lot more than I’ve seen in my hometown,” says Emma.
In Laos, Emma says, she was able to help make a cooking area cleaner for the students to use.
“Just leveling out the ground and creating bamboo walls was enough to make the area more sanitary,” she says. “We also visited an Asiatic Bear Sanctuary that only needed our help to paint metal fences. Even though that doesn’t sound like a lot, it was very beneficial to the sanctuary so that the fences don’t rust and will last.”
“Volunteering abroad was a special experience because the local people were working right beside us and generated such amazing results,” adds Aysia. “They were so grateful for our help and in return they taught us important skills and showed us incredible hospitality.”
For Emma, she “loved how much of a community each village was. Everyone took care of each other and the children were safe to run around. I loved the sense of the community and really want to try to create that back home.”
What Language Barrier?
Aysia and Emma also taught English to school-age children, something Emma was especially excited about.
“Little did I know, it was actually pretty hard,” she says. “You have this language barrier of trying to teach English to students who have no idea what you're talking about. They give you weird looks and even laugh because you look ridiculous trying to demonstrate a word. There was a lot of drawing going on to help the students visualize what we were talking about. So as an art major, it was fun incorporating art into teaching English.”
The key to teaching English, Emma says, is repetition, and being excited and friendly.
“It was beautiful knowing that just teaching English for a few days, I was sculpting a child’s future. For them, knowing English opens up a lot of job opportunities for their future,” she adds. “I had a lot of fun in the end.”
“Teaching in any situation poses challenges as well as rewards,” she says, “but teaching English to children when I did not know their language was a humbling experience. We worked every day to help these children learn new words in English, and they caught on so quickly. I loved seeing their faces when they made connections and felt confident in their new knowledge.”
Never the Same
“My biggest take away from being immersed in a new culture is the importance of patience and acceptance,” says Aysia. “Once I pushed myself to the edge of my comfort zone, I was able to see all of the beautiful and unique aspects of the Thai and Laotian culture.”
For Emma, she says this trip made her realize just how much can be completed in a day, particularly “life-changing things. I realized that I don’t want to waste my days, but make something out of my life.”
She adds that she was truly able to immerse herself into the culture because “I was able to go into local homes, shops, learn to cook, and experience what it’s like to teach in a rural school. I was also able to hike, travel down a river by bamboo raft, be blessed by local monks, and create relationships with the locals,” says Emma.
“Knowing that our efforts and hard work in Thailand and Laos will provide children families with a safe place to cook, and that communities will have water to help them survive the dry season is truly amazing,” says Aysia. “I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to experience their world. I have never experienced a more enriching experience than when I was immersing myself and giving back through this trip.”