I know I’ve mentioned working at a place called BEAM a couple times before, but never really intensively talked about it. As you may know, I’m on a service-learning program that combines academic study with volunteering in the community. We get placed by our program director according to skill set, interest, and availability.
When we met at the beginning of the semester and I mentioned that as a biology student I have a background in the natural sciences, my program director put me in touch with an organization called BEAM, which stands from Bridging Educational Access to Migrants. These migrants come mainly from the ethnic states of Myanmar, who are in Chiang Mai to seek better opportunities for work. Many of them seek out opportunities for education as well, and so many migrant schools have sprung up in Thailand, everything from elementary schools in the refugee camps to evening classes for migrants wanting to learn English.
Many schools also teach vocational skills, like tailoring or computer work, to help migrants be more employable or even open up their own businesses. The problem is that most migrants are undocumented and are constantly at a risk for deportation. This, as well as not having Thai language skills, prevents them from going to a traditional government school. None of the migrant schools are accredited, so there is little to no opportunity for migrants to attend university even if they have high school equivalency.
Enter BEAM. Established in 2009, this non-profit organization split off from the Migrant Learning Center in Chiang Mai to meet the needs of the students for a high school equivalency, currently limited to the western General Education Diploma. The GED program at BEAM is a two year course that teaches students the English skills as well as the content needed to pass the GED exam. Most people in the west with critical reading and thinking skills could pass the GED if they wanted, as all information to answer the questions is provided, it’s all about being able to interpret the text, graphic, or chart.
I was asked to teach a GED-preparation chemistry course for the second year students, some of which would be sitting the exam in late November and some not until 2014. I was given a textbook and a few other materials to teach out of, but other than that the curriculum was up to me. It was a huge challenge to undertake, but I felt confident in my enthusiasm, commitment, and understanding of the material. I would teach a lecture to morning and evening students every Friday, and then offer an optional afternoon class to give extra help in the form of worksheets, one-on-one questions, activities, and videos.
My students were very sweet and very patient with me as I stumbled over their unfamiliar Southeast Asian names. They were attentive during class but sometimes struggled when I gave assignments to be turned in later. There was no formal grading system; it was just up to me to quantify their learning in the form of projects and quizzes. I had them each research a different element when I was gone on my two week break, and they came up with some pretty interesting stuff!
During the afternoon class some memorable activities were watching Magic School Bus and Bill Nye the Science Guy. We also grew our own sugar crystals and I showed them how the polymers in plastic bags keep water from spilling out even when you poke a pencil through. We also broke out a molecular modeling kit when talking about the structures of different compounds. There was lots of equipment and glassware available for my use, but I did not find out until later that there was a locked cabinet with chemicals somewhere in the office. I would have brought in my own stuff but I had no idea how to buy chemicals in Thailand! The classroom wasn’t really conducive to experiments, though, and the Thai custom of removing one’s shoes before entering a room or building posed a bit of a safety threat. I hope the students found my class interesting and fun, though.
Chemistry only accounts for around 15% of the science subject test, so I felt a little like a weight was taken off my shoulders. I also found out that BEAM has a 100% pass rate for the students who sit, having graduated three classes already, so I hoped my efforts contributed a little to its sterling reputation. This was a very humbling experience overall, though, as it really is all about the students’ motivation to succeed and aspire to do more with their lives than the preceded generations of migrants.
Doing international service work can be a slippery slope, as it’s all too easy to fall into the “foreign savior” trap and think that you can swoop in like a superhero and save all the poor people from whatever social ill ails them. This is a form of neo-colonialism and it does not show respect for the existing culture. Instead, international service work should be about integrating into the community and working for what it truly needs, rather than what the volunteers think the community needs. Working at BEAM may not have been as glamorous as building houses or caring for orphans, but it made a difference where a difference was needed. I now believe that working “with” people is far more effective and important that working “for” people. As someone looking to pursue a career that seeks to serve others, this is a critical insight and I am so grateful for the opportunity to develop in a unique way.
Today I leave for Bangkok to fly back to the States tomorrow. I will try to have at least one more blog post wrapping up my thoughts about this incredible journey, but until then I want to thank each and every one of you, dear readers, for your continued support. I really could not have done it alone.