Amanda Ortega, a Hofstra University Honors College (HUHC) alumna, was born and raised in Spain before settling in Florida with her family for middle school and high school. During her senior year at Hofstra, Ortega was a finalist for a Fulbright grant, but she ultimately accepted an assignment from the WorldTeach program, which works in developing nations. She is currently teaching English at a high school in a rural part of Thailand, a country she says she has been interested in for a long time.
What is the WorldTeach program? What interests led you to this organization?
WorldTeach works specifically in developing countries. It is run out of Harvard’s Center for International Development, and it places recently graduated volunteers in the underresourced schools of developing nations. I’m heavily invested in international development and plan to pursue a master’s degree in that field. I eventually want to work with an NGO [nongovernment organization] that empowers girls through education. Research has shown that one of the most empowering forces and catalysts to eradicate worldwide poverty is to educate girls. Keeping girls in school has many positive social ramifications: It delays the marriage age; it allows for a better knowledge of reproductive health and rights; it allows women to become economically independent; and it makes them key players in the economic culture of a society.
If there is anything I am a firm believer in, it is the education and subsequent empowerment of girls. These were my reasons for applying for a Fulbright, to engage in a developing country’s education system, thereby gaining experience for my later pursuits.
My assignment is at Pla Pak Wittaya School, a high school ranging from 7th to 12th grade. The majority of my students come from rice farming families. Many of them, if not most, go on to work in the same trade as their parents, unless they are lucky enough to be able to study at a university. In order to do so, they need to pass a significant English exam.
Why were you so intent on working in Thailand?
I have been set and dedicated to the country for some time now. Thailand is considered a “newly industrialized country,” meaning it has recently gained substantial economic wealth. However, this is seen mostly in the urban areas and little in the rural or non-touristy sectors. There is a great disparity between the country’s rural and urban economies as well as their standards of living. Another reason for choosing Thailand is the effect that this new designation has had on the youth culture. Western influences, modernity and high-speed communication have widened generation gaps, making it difficult for the older generations to advise the country’s youth on once-taboo subjects such as sexual health, maternal health and materialism. Thailand needs WorldTeach. The rural areas need the same opportunities as the urban communities. As the country’s presence in the international market grows, English will be an asset – if not a necessity – for trade. After my WorldTeach position ends, I hope to use all the experience I will have gained and apply it to my academic ambitions.
What has the experience been like so far?
I live in a village called Pla Pak and am more or less a local celebrity. I live with another American from my program; she works at two nearby elementary schools. I also have a Thai roommate, a fellow teacher from my school. Being that I am one of two “farangs” [Thai for white foreigner] in the entire village, I get a significant amount of attention. Strangers are always running up to try to talk to me or touch me. It is still strange, but I’ve come to really enjoy all the attention. I love Pla Pak Wittaya more than I imagined I would. I teach one M1 [7th grade] class, five M2s [8th grade] and three M4s [10th grade]. I also run the upper-level English Club and teach some of the teachers after school one day a week. The students are always very excited to see me, yelling “hellloooo teacherrrrrr” or “I love
youuuuuu.” My co-teachers are all very young. It’s nice because I can relate to them, and we have many laughs. Still, the pressure of learning the Thai language, participating in extracurricular activities, early morning hours
and the warm weather often leave me feeling tired. But the excitement of my students when I walk on campus and the truly warm and friendly smiles and invites I get from complete strangers make it completely worth it. I will be teaching here until September 2011.
What was your HUHC experience like?
I did not live in the honors residence halls, but I found myself in honors seminars almost every semester and took advantage of the New York City honors outings. I especially enjoyed the small size of HUHC; I was able to build a relationship with Dean [Neil] Donahue, Rita [Corbett] and PeggyAnn [Matusiak]. They all acted as a huge support system in scheduling, advisement, and making sure that I was on track in my academics and extracurricular life.
Are there any professors who were mentors to you?
Most definitely. The professors in the Anthropology Department all gave me excellent advice and inspired me in one way or another. Dr. Dan Varisco was by far my most supportive, inspirational and motivating professor. I had a class with him almost every semester. During the Darwin’s Reach
conference [in 2009], he invited me to the reception dinner, along with only a few other students. I had the opportunity to meet Frans de Waal, a leading primatologist whose materials I had read in my classes. Dr. Varisco made it a point to reach out and have coffee or lunch to simply chat about current events, my future aspirations and classes I was taking.
Other professors also instilled a sense of adventure or a desire to experience new understandings. Professor [Kumiko] Endo, who teaches courses in Eastern religions, gave me the opportunity to see Iranian President Ahmadinejad speak at a U.N. conference. Dr. [Stephanie] Cobb, who teaches variations of early Christianity, was a tough professor who sometimes gave an absurd amount of work. But she instilled in me the idea that perspectives on anything vary throughout time and are culturally sensitive. This, of course, led me to take more of her classes.
Would you encourage other students to take the opportunity to do a volunteer position instead of jumping right into a more traditional type of job? Why is this opportunity important to you?
Yes! I would most definitely encourage all students to go outside of their comfort zones after graduation. I encourage everyone to travel, step outside of yourself and see another culture. Travel doesn’t even have to be in a
foreign country; it can be in a less fortunate area of the United States or an extended period in a service-based volunteer position. You won’t make as much money as the guy with the corporate job, but you’ll get there eventually, and maybe with a better understanding of the world outside your own sphere.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
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