Name: Michelle Erwin
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English
Occupation: Special Education Life Skills Teacher at Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District
Past travel experience: Moderate
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for Disabled Children in Hanoi, Vietnam
Duration: 5 weeks
Start month: June 2015
Claim to fame: Did a peace project for Northern Irish teens to promote religious tolerance between Protestants and Catholics.
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
As a teacher, I get two months off for summer break. This year I wanted to use my time wisely by giving back and exploring a new country and its culture. After I decided that I wanted to volunteer, I spoke to a good friend who had been an UBELONG volunteer before in Cambodia. He spoke very highly of the support that the UBELONG organization gives to its volunteers; so it was easy to see that this was the organization that would be right for me! After learning more about the organization, I looked more specifically into its programming. As a special education teacher, it is my passion is to work with children with varied special needs. UBELONG is one of the only organizations that partners with other groups having specific programming targeted at teaching and empowering children with disabilities.
What was your impact on your volunteer project?
Working with the students at the center was such incredible experience! My impact could be measured by the relationships I formed with the children in my class. It was so rewarding to have a child “high five me” when she or he got the answer right or call my name if she or he needed help. Although sometimes my impact could have seemed small, like helping teach a student their numbers or helping them match their colors; it was clear by the end of my volunteer experience, that there was no such thing as a small act. For students with disabilities, it is important to support them and encourage them to accomplish things they never thought they could!
What were your major challenges?
By far my biggest challenge was the language barrier. Although I knew it would be difficult to communicate to the children and the staff members, I did not realize how difficult it would truly be. Although there was one teacher who spoke a little bit of broken English, most of my communication was made through actions. However, it encouraged me to start learning some Vietnamese so I could teach the children their numbers and colors. Although after five weeks I wasn’t able to speak Vietnamese, I did learn a way to communicate and create a bond with the students and teachers in a different way. It was a truly humbling experience.
In a sentence or less, best advice for fitting in with the local culture?
Get out of your comfort zone, try new things and embrace the beauty of the (Vietnamese) culture.