University is great. It educates us, it gives us the credentials to work good jobs and do great things with our lives, it looks good on our resume. But how long can you sit in a classroom in the middle of nowhere Ohio and actually learn about the conflict and strife in Africa, or Mecca and Israel, two of the holiest places in the world for Muslims and Jews, or about the horrible situation in Burma? How can you really learn about these things when you are so far removed from them and across the globe from them? Last year, sitting in my nice, heated dorm room as the snow fell outside of my window onto the beautiful Kenyon College campus, I had this realization. I am a history and religious studies double major learning about events that seem so distant to me. I had to get out, I had to study in a different country and experience and witness the religion and history of a country first hand.
I sent out my study abroad applications to Israel and Thailand – two places I had visited in the past, but only briefly and as a vacationer, but both places I loved. In Israel I could study my own religion and be engulfed in the incredible spirituality that makes Israel such a Holy land, for not only Jews, but many other religions and people as well. In Thailand I could study a religion different from my own, one I knew little about. I would also be exposed to more volunteer opportunities, really getting my hands dirty and having the experience I wanted. There is also such an interesting history of Thailand – not only is the culture so deeply rooted in past history and traditions, but I also find it fascinating how Thai history is so closely related to other countries close-by. Obviously, I ended up choosing Thailand and after telling my program I wanted to be placed somewhere teaching English, I was ecstatic when I learned I would not only be teaching English, but I would be teaching English at an educational center for Burmese Refugees. Embarrassingly, I knew little about the situation in Burma. I asked my dad, a history and politics bluff, for some information and together we did research on the issues there. Incredibly saddened after doing this research, I hoped that by taking a Burma/Myanmar politics class while studying here in Thailand, learning about the social and political issues in Thailand, and volunteering at Freedom House, I would not only learn about the situation through academics, but I would truly realize the situation through working first hand with those who had and who continued to suffer from the devastating problems in Burma. I also new that instead of merely gaining knowledge about the situation, I could actually effect someone’s life, even if it was just on a small scale.
Since I have been here in Thailand, taking the class on Burma/Myanmar politics with a professor who is a political activist who has been exiled from Burma, taking another class on all the social and political issues in Thailand – which of course includes the situation in Burma – and volunteering here at Freedom House, I truly feel like I am gaining something much more valuable than had I been sitting in the library at my college in Ohio learning about things that I could never truly know, unless experiencing them first hand. So here I am, feeling like I can actually give something back to those who I have read books and articles about. Now I do not only know their history, I know them as real live people as well.
I have only been here for two months, but my time here at Freedom House has been truly amazing. I love working with the children – they are bright, beautiful, and above all else, they are children and what child should be denied an education and the chance to just be a kid? Why should their ethnicity or “mother- country” (if you can call Burma that) dictate their ability to receive a solid education? Freedom House is incredible because it does not only give these children access to an education, but it allows them to just goof around, to be children, to have fun. At home, they have to take on many responsibilites, responsibilites that I could never imagine having had when I was ten years old. At Freedom House, they can just be little kids. To me, this is so incredibly valuable.
I know that giving back isn’t about making yourself feel good, but I cannot help but feel so lucky and privileged that I am able to have this experience — incorporating my studies into actual experiences and hopefully touching someone’s life.
Here are some photos I took of the children… just being kids!
This is Dow – Dow is shy but has so much love and effection for everyone. She is so beautiful and a quick learner
Mai – Mai is very intelligent and her English is really excelling. She is a leader and the other children look up to her. She is so sweet as well.
This is On – On is silly and fun and really enjoys learning. She always brings great energy and excitement to class and her passion for learning as well as art is amazing to watch.
Knowledge + experience = the best education!