‘It’s six weeks! Are you sure you want to do this?’
‘You don’t even know their language, how are you going to help them?’
‘What if you feel homesick?’
The questions rambled on and on from friends and family when I mentioned the idea of going on a global volunteering project to Taiwan. I may feel homesick, I may find it difficult to communicate, and I may find six weeks too long, but I chose to challenge myself by embarking on this volunteering journey with AIESEC last December. Today, AIESEC stands as the world’s largest non-profit youth-run organisation in consultative status with the United Nations. Among its many goals, I felt like I resonated most with ‘Activating Leadership’. I wanted to lead by example, inspire leadership through my actions and results. I wanted to make sure that I created an impact in someone’s life, potentially providing an opportunity to continuously develop themselves.
This project was called ‘Dream beyond Language’. I was required to teach English to students aged between 13 and 15 in Nanshing Junior High School in Chiayi, Taiwan. In the beginning, the students were timid and never really interacted with me unless forced to. For most of them this was their first-time meeting someone whose language was foreign to their own, so I expected some uncertainty from the students. They had never been in an environment where English was used as the medium for communication for an entire 45 minutes. Even their English teachers spoke Chinese during classes! It would have been uncanny if they had not behaved that way. I soon realised that I had to change my way of doing things; I started spending more time with them at their favourite classes like art, cooking and sports.
I wanted them to be rid of any apprehension of interacting with me. In classes I created quizzes for them to attempt, I started giving them more time to draw to express themselves and then teaching them how to describe what they drew in English. They felt more comfortable writing down English words than articulating them for fear of mispronouncing them. I would then say words and sentences and get them to repeat after me. The students gradually started developing a penchant for the classes and were not afraid of me anymore. They would write me letters, they would come up to me and have a chat during their break times, and some of them even invited me to have lunch with them. During their classes, I taught them about my country and its culture. I even taught them how a line follower robot works using a bot car I had programmed! They had lots of fun constructing different tracks for the robot to run on.
Ultimately, I would never regret having taken this journey as I have gained so much from it. The gratification you get from knowing that you made a difference in someone’s life will remain unmatched. Some students continue to text me on messenger saying that they miss me or just to have a conversation with me. One even said ‘Sneha teacher, please text me a few questions in English! I want to see if I can answer them’. To realise that I inspired the students to learn English and take initiatives to keep improving their skills makes me feel special and it undoubtedly boosts my self-confidence. I think while studying we get caught up in finding an internship or landing that first job related to our field. Remember, you can always do something very different from what you are studying and try to incorporate your interests to make the most out of the new experience. Who knows, it may even make you rethink your degree. For example, I study Mechatronics Engineering, yet I was able to use my English lessons to teach them about programming and how a simple bot car would work. While I won’t be changing degrees, I feel a sense of achievement that I was able to successfully cross boundaries to create an impact in another part of the world. This project has been a very memorable experience for me and I will carry the lessons I learnt from it with me throughout my life. I hope if you get a chance to go on similar volunteering projects that you go ahead and give it a try yourself!
Words and image by Sneha Manimurugan