Study Abroad

Returning

May 31, 2017

Today is our last full day of this trip, and time for me to share with everyone the monumental importance of what we have done here. This is my second time coming to Tanzania with the Lasell Shoulder-to-Shoulder program, this time as a group leader. The opportunity to return has reinforced the impact of everything we do here. This experience has been rich in depth and there are many things I could talk about. However, I am going to focus this blog on the unique aspect of my experience different than my peers: returning.

When we came last year, we were the first Lasell group to ever go to Tanzania. No one had ever done what we were planning to do, worked at the school we were planning to work at, or engaged in the community in the way we were planning to engage. We were there to pave the way and establish a connection, and I could not imagine a better group of students than the ones I traveled with last year to do this. While we were there, Tom explained to us to importance of returning, and the importance of establishing trust, especially when it comes to international service. He explained to us that since this was a new program, we would not have that. Yet what we did this first year was of vital importance. We believed him (since he knows more about international service than anyone we know), but I know I don't only speak for myself when I say I have often pondered the actual depth of our influence for the past year. Questioning if our impact was as positive as our intent. I knew of course while we were there we had brought smiles to their faces and fleeting joy. But I think that this trip has much more potential to bring only fleeting joy, and I worried that we had not lived up to that potential last year.

All of those doubts and questions and insecurities were erased on the first day we went to school a couple weeks ago. I can't even begin to compare the difference between the first day of school last year to the first day of school this year. However, I will try. The first main difference is there is now a new Headmaster at the school. When we sat down to ask him how he would like us to engage in the school, it was clear that, though he was new, he knew who we were and what we had done last year. Our impact was important enough to be relayed to the new leader, who was immediately appreciative and understanding of our intent. It was also clear that it meant something to him that Tom and I had returned. This was my first personal experience to begin to grasp the depth of the importance of what we do here. The importance of returning was ingrained in my mind forever when the headmaster brought us into the classrooms to meet the students and the teachers. He brought us into Standard Seven, which has about 80 students learning in one classroom. I worked with these students last year in Standard Six (shoutout to my partners Emma, Bri, and Sam who worked with me), and saw many familiar faces in the crowd. When I stepped forward to introduced myself, the students erupted in uncontrolled excitement. They remembered me. They remembered what we had done here. In that moment two thoughts overwhelmed me. 

The first: what we did here MATTERS. What we do here MATTERS. Most of all, returning MATTERS. 

The second: I cannot wait to tell the news to all of my friends who came last year. What we did here last year helped establish a connection and a level of respect that allowed us to bring our impact closer to our intent. That what they did mattered. 

That night we went around the circle and reflected on both the best and worst parts of our day. I had a million good things; watching Haleigh play with children on the playground who don't go to school, watching Aliza connect with students through art, watching Alex's confidence grow, watching the joy on Nicole's face when she watched the kids play soccer, trying to talk Lauren down from happy crying while trying to not to happy cry myself. It was only the first day, but everyone in the group had an experience that brought light to their eyes and joy to their heart. I was so happy for them.

However, I was brought near tears discussing the worst part of my day. All of these happy things were built on the backs of the hard work of the 11 other students who came last year. Not everything was easy and fun, and a lot of time was spent working to establish a connection that would allow us to do the work we intended. We endured a lot of stress, and awkward silences, and trial and error that ended with a lot of error. Though we were happy, we were constantly questioning if what we were doing was wanted or valuable. Through all of that, these people persevered, and found light. They put their hearts and souls into the service, and because of them, the Tanzanian people's hearts were open to us when we arrived this year. They returned home and spoke of their experiences in a way that encouraged 15 new, amazing students to come back this year. They put in all the hard work that made it possible for every face in the reflection circle to be happy and confident. The work that allowed the headmaster and teachers to welcome us with warmth on the first day. The work that let the students feel immediately comfortable enough to pull us into their circle at recess and teach us their playground songs. It feels unfair that Tom and I are the only ones who can truly understand the importance of what they did here last year. The look of excitement on the kids faces when they recognized me is for all of us. Their claps when I read them a book they remembered from last year is for all of us. The going away party the school staff held is for all of us. I wish so much they could all experience and understand how important what they did is. All I can do is express my deep thanks for their perseverance.With the information we learned last year, we changed our teaching style, and had 8 partner groups of Lasell students split the large class sizes into manageable groups of 8-10 students. With this model we were not only able to convey our lessons to the students more effectively, we also connected with them in a more personal manner. Last year we struggled with the variation of competency levels in the classes, managing the amount of students, and even speaking loud enough so that all students could hear. With our new small group conversation based teaching model, all of those complications were overcome, and each day we left the school feeling like we were truly reaching our goal of improving the performance on the Standard 7 English exam. 

I also need to express my deep thanks to Tom and Lasell for giving me the opportunity to return. We were able to improve so much this year, and increase our impact tenfold. I was able to truly understand the importance of returning, and I can now share that, not only with my 11 friends from last year, but with anyone who is curious about international service. I was asked to speak at the going-away ceremony the teachers held for us, and I spoke of how my mother taught me the most important gift one can give is education. We have learned so much from the people we have met here, and taught them as well. I hope that Lasell continues to give and receive this gift in Lundamatwe for many years to come.