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“Living in the volunteer house with people from every nationality was an extraordinary experience. I realized that language is the key to everything.”


Mai Le is a bright undergraduate student at Harvard University who recently served for four weeks teaching English in the Volunteer Abroad in Hanoi. Originally from the Palm Springs area in Southern California, Mai’s father is from Vietnam; he moved to the US at age 14 right before the end of the war. Mai grew up in a household immersed in Vietnamese traditions.

Before serving in Hanoi this summer, she did not have much experience volunteering. However, she had been to Vietnam twice before with her family. Her time serving in Hanoi was different from her previous visits. It changed her life. “Before Hanoi, I had always wanted to be a doctor. Now I am undecided and I am also considering devoting my career to teaching. Vietnam opened my mind to other possibilities. I wish I had stayed longer”. Here is her interview.

What motivated you to seek a UBELONG volunteer opportunity in Hanoi?
I knew I wanted to do some overseas travel this summer, and I wanted to go to Vietnam because my dad is from there. I was looking for a high quality and affordable program and I found UBELONG, which was the right fit for me. I had visited Vietnam before as a tourist. This time I wanted to volunteer because volunteering allows you to be part of a community and fully immerse yourself in the culture. You work with the same people every day and you become part of the community. I feel I understand my father’s country much better now. You can read all the books in the world about a country but you don’t know what it’s like until you’ve lived among the people.

What was most difficult or challenging to you during your placement?
The most difficult part of my volunteer assignment was my inability to communicate fluently with my students. I am very familiar with Vietnamese culture but I never managed to learn the language. So I had to rely on others to communicate more complex concepts in the classroom. Besides teaching at an elementary school in the mornings, some afternoons I also taught university students. They were classes mostly focused on conversation and pronunciation. It was difficult because my university students were my age. I felt bad because I was an authority figure to them for no other reason than speaking my own language. Having to correct them was awkward.

Besides my placement, certain aspects of life in Vietnam were not easy for me. Learning how to bargain at the market was hard because I don’t like to make people unhappy. The price of almost everything you want to buy in Hanoi is higher for foreigners, and playing the bargaining game was not natural to me.

What did you learn about yourself in Hanoi?
I learned that I am a good teacher. I had never considered teaching before but I really enjoyed it. Other people who observed my classes told me that I have talent for it and I should consider it as a career option. I have wanted to be a doctor since I was five, but now I am considering this other option.

On the personal level, I traveled to Hanoi alone and I learned that I can take care of myself in any situation. Living in the volunteer house with people from every nationality was an extraordinary experience that taught me many other things. For example, I realized that language is the key to everything. I want to learn new languages. It’d be so much fun to learn a bunch of languages.

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