“Little did I know that my 6th grade class would be the one to uplift my spirits.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Celinne da Costa
Age: 24
Hometown: New York, New York
Nationality: Italy, Brazil
Languages spoken: Italian, Portuguese, English (fluent) and Spanish (fluent)
University: University of Pennsylvania
Degree: Communication
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Teaching English in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Duration: 2 weeks
Start month: August 2015
Claim to fame: Celinne keeps a travel blog named The Nomad’s Oasis.

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
My trip to Cambodia as a UBELONG Volunteer materialized due to a series of serendipitously connected events involving tweeting out my blog one day in January having it be randomly retweeted and praised by a stranger, and reaching out to said stranger to thank him for the support. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this stranger was Leon Logothetis, an author and TV host who traveled the world on a yellow motorcycle with no money, surviving purely on the kindness of others. When Leon told me about the Human Interaction Project – a foundation that partners with UBELONG to send young people to volunteer abroad with the goal of connecting strangers through kindness – something inside of me clicked. This trip felt like the missing piece of a puzzle I’ve been deciphering for quite a while: that of finding ways to travel the world, connect with people, and do some good along the way. Unequivocally, I knew that I needed to apply.

What is your favorite memory?
During my first week in Phnom Penh, a few volunteers and I went out to explore the night life. I was devastated by what I saw: street children everywhere, begging, sleeping on the streets, and working as prostitutes. I arrived to the school/orphanage I was teaching English in the next morning with a heavy heart, feeling utterly drained of emotional energy. Little did I know that my 6th grade class would be the one to uplift my spirits. As I was waiting for the students to trickle in, I made small talk with some of the kids. Communicating with the 6th graders is still a feat, but it’s made slightly easier by their higher knowledge of English and the assistant teacher who roughly translates for me. Some of the kids asked me if I went to university, which soon transitioned into curiosity of what I did back in New York. When I wrote my job on the board (“digital marketing”), I was surprised by the awe I saw in their eyes. This sparked an idea.

Earlier that morning, when debating my next lesson, a fellow volunteer suggested that I teach the kids about dream jobs. I quickly dismissed the thought – the words would be too difficult to translate, and knowing how horrible the Cambodian education system is, I was frankly terrified that asking them what they wanted to do wouldn’t elicit an optimistic answer. I quickly I learned that I was wrong. I began my lesson by asking them: “what is your dream?” I was met with puzzled looks. It took a series of gesticulations and assisted translations to help them understand what I meant by “dream.” When the question finally sunk in, something amazing happened – their eyes lit up, and the room began to buzz with conversation. In an unintelligible sea of Khmer words, I deciphered the only English ones that mattered: superstar, policeman, doctor.

One by one, I asked each student to go up to the board and write down their dream. After assisting the first student with writing down her dream of being a lawyer, I turned around to see the next student, a 14 year old girl, with tears in her eyes. I instantly got nervous – this was my second crier in just 2 days. I approached her and realized that, unlike yesterday’s student, her tears weren’t of embarrassment or not knowing the right answer. They were of sheer surprise. I wondered whether she’d ever been asked that question. At that moment, this little girl filled my heart with love and she didn’t even know it. I wish I could have told her, but the next best thing I could do was show her. I took her hand and together, we wrote her dream on the board: to become a teacher. I felt a mixed pang of joy and sadness when I took a step back and looked at that beautiful list of dreams. These children revealed to me that, despite their difficult situations, each and every one of them aspired to study and make something of their life. Their excitement towards the future was infectious – I felt so much gratitude for the hope they had invigorated in me.

What did you take from the experience?
I kept a blog during my time there, in which I was closely able to track with my thoughts and emotions in real-time. My biggest takeaways of all was that people’s futures are heavily shaped by how much those surrounding them believe in their potential. So, choose to believe in someone. In order to overcome obstacles and pursue their dreams, people (children especially) need to feel like they are capable. The people surrounding us influence our reality and consequently our future. Once you tell someone that they cannot do something, that person may start to believe it.

We do this all too often: laugh at people’s exorbitant dreams, pity their unfortunate circumstances, smile and encourage them while secretly thinking to ourselves that it’s probably not going to happen. While there are countless people who will doubt our ability to achieve our dreams, all it takes is one person to really believe in us to inspire us to get there.

There is so much I was able to accomplish, even when the odds were stacked against me, because of all the people in my life who took turns relentlessly believing in my potential. The children that I met in Cambodia need this: approximately 70% of them will never make it past the 12th grade. What incentive do they have to believe they will someday escape poverty and have a promising future, when they are trapped in a system that is designed to discourage them from completing their education? One thing is certain – they will not believe in their potential if they are not pushed to try. When faced with a situation that appears unfavorable or hopeless, the only obstacle that may stand between us and giving up is someone who tells us to keep going. Be that person for someone. In doing so, you have the potential to change a life (or more).

In a sentence or less, what was your funniest moment?
My first day teaching, the kids discovered that I have a tattoo on the back of my neck – at the end of the day, about 10 kids came up to me to show me their new “tats” that they had drawn with markers on the back of their necks! Oh boy…

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Related post:
Meet Philipp, a Helmut-Schmidt-Universität Hamburg grad who volunteered with UBELONG in Cambodia, at the caregiving project.