Name: Mackenzie Morrison-Heath
Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English, Russian (intermediate), Spanish (intermediate)
Occupation: Recreation and Education Assistant at Ak Child & Family
Volunteer Abroad: Teaching English in Luang Prabang, Laos
Duration: 24 weeks
Start month: December 2017
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
Preparing for this trip my partner and I knew that we wanted to do a longer volunteer experience, around 6 months. I had traveled to Laos three years prior and felt confident that I wanted to return because I loved the country and people so much. We wanted to ensure, as much as is possible with international volunteering, that we would be placed in a project where our contribution would be both meaningful and productive.
Searching for international volunteering was a daunting process, but when we came across UBELONG’s website and reviews I felt at ease. That ease continued throughout our experience with UBELONG, from answering any and all questions before applying, thoroughly preparing us prior to departure, to offering continued support while at the project. Ultimately though, I have to thank UBELONG most for finding our program director Somsouk in Luang Prabang. I felt so much pride in being able to help this amazing school even just a little bit, and none of this would have been possible without UBELONG’s dedication to finding meaningful programs throughout the world.
What were your major challenges?
I am struggling to answer this question because I’m a glass half full kind of person, so I like to see challenges not as obstacles but instead as adventures waiting to be fulfilled. Looking back there were certainly things my partner and I had to overcome. We worked and saved for two years to be able to do such a long volunteering experience (24 weeks total), but all that was certainly worth it.
When we arrived at the project there was definitely an adjustment period of teaching for 4-6 hours a day. That first week we were amazed how absolutely dead tired we were at the end of the day. But as time passed, living and volunteering in Luang Prabang felt like everyday life back at home.
Of course there were other challenges, like living in a country with a different culture where many people didn’t speak our language. We worked hard to learn a little bit of the Lao language, and strived to embrace the relaxed culture of Laos. I’ll leave you with one of the most commonly used words by Lao people, and my response to unexpected challenges, “bopenang” – what does it mean? “No problem.”.
What is your favorite memory?
I cannot possibly choose one single memory, there have truly been too many amazing moments here. I will tell two stories, one about my teaching experience and one about interacting with the locals of Luang Prabang, Laos.
The students have been an absolute joy to work with, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart. One of my most special moments here was not just a moment, but a progression of learning moments that I got to witness and help develop. When I arrived at one of my classes, which I co-taught with a Lao teacher, was made up of 6 university-age students who were all incredibly kind and very smart. When I started in December the students had been learning English for about 3 months and had already developed an impressive vocabulary of words. The special moment came when the Lao teacher and I taught the students sentence structure and grammar for the first time. Suddenly, these students who before were only mimicking one word vocabulary, could speak actual sentences. The excitement from them during this was palpable. Although we had shared so much nonverbal communication before, this teaching moment changed it all. Now this wonderful group of young adults were able to tell me in English how they were feeling, what they wanted to do in their future, and why they wanted to learn English – among many other things. It was like getting to re-meet them all over again, and knowing that I helped them get to this place felt incredible.
During Laos New Year my partner and I decided we wanted to go watch the morning almsgiving ceremony. Because of the Buddhist holiday the locals give the novices and monks sweet snacks as opposed to just sticky rice. We sat on the side of the quiet street and observed the beautiful early morning ritual of locals giving food to feed the monks for the day. On this particular day the monks had collected so many snacks that their alms bowls were filled to the brim and many were carrying additional bags to store all the goodies.
We smiled as some of our novice students passed, and we exchanged what little Lao we speak with women sitting near us – they all appreciated that I was wearing a Lao traditional skirt. Each line of novices was led by their temple monk, and suddenly one of the monks veered out of his line of saffron robes and began walking toward us with his hand outstretched. I realized as he approached that he was offering us some of his extra food. As a woman I knew I was not allowed to take the snacks from him, so I turned to my partner and saw he was completely awestruck. At this point the monk was standing above us smiling expectantly, and I practically had to push my partner’s arm up to accept the gift. The monk smiled graciously and found his place back in line. To be offered something like this from a place that has already given us so much felt like the epitome of our time here. The kindness shown to us by both the local people and our students will stay forever in my heart.
In a sentence or less, best packing advice?
Lao people dress very modestly, so bring items that are cool (it’s very hot here!) but also cover your knees and shoulders.