Katie Flanagan, LE Thailand Alumna, on returning to Thailand with a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship
What led you to apply to become a Learning Enterprises (LE) volunteer for the summer of 2018?
As an International Affairs major, I was eager for an opportunity to learn about a new society through on the ground immersion. I had also been a coach and tutor since middle school. So, when the George Washington University Campus Director talked to me about LE it seemed like the perfect opportunity to engage in cross-cultural exchange while using my teaching skills to serve others.
Why did you choose Thailand?
I wanted to challenge myself by going somewhere that I was unfamiliar with. I had never traveled to or taken classes about Asia, let alone Thailand. So, I thought Thailand would provide the perfect opportunity for me to learn and grow.
What was your experience like while you were there?
I felt so lucky to be there every day. I absolutely fell in love with the country. I lived in an 11-person multi-generation household in a rural town of just over 200 families. My host family was just that: family. We would make dinner together, watch reality game shows, and travel around central Thailand on the weekends. For every cultural difference I experienced in Thailand, I would find seven more shared interests to laugh and smile about. My students were also the most kind, talented, hard-working, and funny individuals I have ever met. They ranged from kindergarten to 9th grade –so I was able to sing Baby Shark with the youngsters, but also facilitate group discussions on movies and sports with the older students. To this day, I still text my students, fellow teachers, and host family weekly (at least).
What challenges did you face, both expected and unexpected, in your role as an English teacher and/or as member in a foreign community?
I had expected the language barrier, cultural differences, and living conditions to challenge me. But I hadn’t expected that I would end up enjoying these challenges so much. Communicating without words meant that I got to act, dance, and laugh all the time. The cultural differences challenged me to reevaluate my own values. I had incredible conversations about marriage, food, religion, time management, and politics with my family members who spoke English. By the end of the trip, I had even developed an emotional bond with the lizard (Fred) and cockroach (Wallace) who lived in my bathroom.
The only challenge that really caught me off guard was how draining it is to teach every day. You always have to be emitting positive energy while simultaneously altering your lesson in real time to maximize student comprehension, especially when you’re teaching in a language your students don’t have command of. I had to learn how to assess my own energy levels on the spot, and I had to develop new routines for decompressing to ensure I was always the best version of myself in class.
You were recently offered a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Thailand. Can you tell us what this fellowship entails?
This fellowship means I will be returning to Thailand for a full year as an English teacher and cultural ambassador for the United States.
How did your experience as a Learning Enterprises volunteer teacher in Thailand help prepare or inform you for this English Teaching Assistantship?
LE prepared me perfectly for this fellowship. I feel confident in my ability to teach English, make cross-cultural connections, and adapt to new experiences because I know I’ve already done all those things in Thailand before!
Did you already have an interest in international volunteerism or programs prior to volunteering for Learning Enterprises?
Yes! I was an International Affairs major, so I was always interested in opportunities that would allow me to live and work overseas. LE really stood out to me because it was student run, affordable, and seemed to have really ethical and sustainable connections with its host countries.
What would you tell young adults about Learning Enterprises, including those who perhaps don’t currently have a great interest in international volunteerism or programs?
LE was one of the most influential experiences in my life thus far. You meet the most incredible people! Every day I felt so confident and fulfilled by how I spent my time and energy. If you are adaptable, enjoy working with children, and want an experience that will completely alter your life view, you should volunteer with LE!