Cuso International’s program Volunteers for International Co-operation and Empowerment (VOICE) is ending. VOICE brought me to Laos and, effective March 15th, the VOICE program will cease to exist. VOICE volunteers and partners met on Thursday to review and discuss the various collaborations, contributions and partnerships of the past 5 years. The closing remarks at the end of the day were exactly that. But it was a good day.
· We heard about free-range chicken production, goat farming and growing mangoes in Attapeu province. Climate smart agricultural practices in Savannakhet and small-scale vegetable growing in Sekong province. The successes were highlighted and suggestions for improvement made.
· It was great to see Mai and Pounam, the young Lao national volunteers, interacting and intervening with such confidence. Both had spoken of their shyness at the start of their internships at the Cuso Country Program Office. Pounam has just been awarded a scholarship to study in the USA for a few weeks this spring and Mai boasts an impressive list of experiences gained over the course of his internship. Their futures await them.
· In his introductory remarks, Tim Edwards, the Canadian chargé d’affaires, reminded the participants that, he represents Canada in Laos but the real faces of Canada in Laos have been the Cuso volunteers.
· As I listened to my Cuso teaching colleague, Ian, I wished I were 30 years old again. His placement at the Institute of Foreign Affairs is a significant milestone on his résumé and that’s why I felt a bit envious as he talked us through some of the possible career paths he can take after he leaves on March 15th.
· And here are the most pertinent remarks from my own presentation:
It’s an honour for me to teach at IFA. The students are wonderful! I feel appreciated and motivated to inspire them more in their English studies. I see first-hand some of the knock-on effects of EFL teaching: the students who take the knowledge they acquire at IFA and use it to teach English as a way of supplementing their income or simply helping others get a better start at language learning; the student who followed up a lead about free English classes at the American Centre, took the placement test and landed a place on one of the courses; the former students who get in touch to meet up for coffee or other gatherings because it’s a way of keeping up their English; and all the students who interact on Facebook or text with a question (or an invitation!)…authentic English, all of it….
I was surprised when Cuso announced it was closing its VOICE program in Laos. Especially at IFA. And halfway through the term. I was being asked to abandon my students and that didn’t sit well with my personal teaching ethics. Of course I could be replaced by another teacher but at what cost to the students? Most educators would agree that switching instructors halfway through a course is disruptive to learning. In the case of the present Course #43, two teachers are being removed.
I’m lucky that I can afford to fund my final three months here in order to continue teaching on Course #43 out of my personal savings. I’ve paid a deposit on a little apartment, taken out a new health insurance policy and Cuso Headquarters in Ottawa knows that I am flying back to Canada on June 20th, the day after Course #43 graduates. My students deserve it.
At the Course #42 graduation ceremony last December, my Cuso team leader, Ouee, was seated next to me. As we watched each student walk across the front of the room to collect their certificate, Ouee commented, “You’re looking at the future of Lao PDR.”
And I’m honoured to be a part of that future. It’s why I volunteered in the first place.