Volunteer reflects on 12 month assignment in Cambodia
Melbourne, Australia, 1st December 2019 --
1. Please describe your volunteer experience.
In 2018 I was a volunteer for 12 months at Don Bosco Technical School (DBTS), Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I worked within the school as the 2nd year student’s English teacher, though over the course of 12 months the day to day nature of my role changed with differing class sizes and frequency of class time. As well as teaching, I also lived with the Salesian community at the school, that comprised of Salesian Fathers, Brothers, and other volunteers. DBTS also houses both female and male boarding students, as well as a smaller group of high school aged boys and their activities – work, sport, recreation, prayer and study - would fill most of my time outside of the school day.
2. What was one of the greatest joys of the experience?
There were so many joys throughout my experience in Cambodia, but mostly they all stem back to the relationships and connection I was able to develop with my students and other teachers that I taught, lived, played, and worked with. Beyond trying to teach and improve my student’s English abilities, the real joy was being able to break through the shy and often ashamed nature that students would come into class with and have them develop trust and confidence in me and themselves when they came to class. The Boarding students program also deepened those relationships, every day we would play sport, work, or just sit and spend time together laughing and sharing.
3. What was the one of the biggest challenges of the experience?
In the beginning when I first arrived there were lots of small challenges that after 12 months felt strange to have been challenging earlier on, as things had become second nature. But I definitely remember feeling overwhelmed and foreign in those first few weeks learning to navigate a new language, new environment, and new cultural expectations. Thinking about bigger challenges, an overarching one of my experience would be the continual confronting realities of my students. Together with building relationships with my students came also a trust that allowed them to share with me many harsh realities that they had or were continuing to live. I’m so appreciative to my students for welcoming me to share in a part of their life, though was continually taken back by the stories behind the persevering and joyful faces I had come to know.
4. Describe one thing you learned from your volunteer experience.
I learnt a lot about what we share as people, often describing how my volunteer experience was quite difficult because what I was able to do and what I was given is all intangible. I really learnt a lot through my students and community about the affect we have on the people we meet and the environments we are in by the way we act and the things we say – our willingness to share ourselves. It’s difficult to describe what I learnt, I think the best way I can put it is that I learnt how to be more human – the environment I was in continually called on me to draw out my inner gifts and share them with others.
5. How has this experience impacted your life journey?
My experience at DBTS still occupies a very real part of me, although having only been back for around 10 months now, I think knowing how my experience in Cambodia has impacted my life journey is still continually revealing itself. There is a lot of ‘translating’ I’ve had to do since returning, in terms of understanding what the impact of my time at DBTS looks and lives out like in my life, as I continue to live in Australia – a completely different culture and setting – for the foreseeable future. I think some people in my life anticipated some sort of career or life direction change when I returned, though largely the framework of my life is quite similar but the way I go about things has changed in both subtle and obvious ways.
6. What does Don Bosco mean to you after this experience? What can the message of Don Bosco offer the world today?
My time in Cambodia had a huge impact on my understanding and love for Don Bosco and the Salesians. I was involved in Australian Salesian works prior to going to Cambodia and continue to be now, but finding a place for Don Bosco to be fully present in the way I work with young people has increased in priority. DBTS has really set itself apart from the other technical institutes available in Phnom Penh, through the formation it gives students and the spirit of love and faithfulness to Don Bosco that is present throughout the school. The message of Don Bosco still has just as much to offer the world today as it did in the earliest days of the oratory in Turin, young people still need to know that they are loved.