I am now happily ensconced in a tertiary education centre on the Thai-Burma border, tutoring an inspirational group of young Burmese refugees who are studying for a Diploma of Liberal Studies offered by Australian Catholic University (ACU).
This internationally-accredited diploma is designed to empower students who have fled oppression in Burma so that they can provide the leadership in their communities and take charge of their own lives. The diploma can also help them to gain entrance to a university and opens the opportunity for scholarships should they wish to go further on the tertiary path. Graduates of the program, started in 2003, can now be found working for the common good in their communities in, for example, non-government organisations (NGOs) and community based organisations (CBOs), as leaders, teachers, social workers, translators and interpreters.
It is not a top–down enterprise. The subjects were initially chosen after consultation with the communities themselves. Fundamentals of Management, Leadership Communication, English Language Communication Skills, International Developments Studies, Human Rights Law, Psychology, Photography and Global Environmental Change are being studied by the students this academic year. The students are relishing the emphasis throughout on critical thinking skills. They love being able to exercise their intellects, free from the notorious rote-learning system they encountered in Burma. “I am not forced to be a ‘Yes-student’, anymore”, wrote one delighted student.
Lectures are delivered by a pedagogical mix through e-learning, distance education and face-to-face teaching. Some are totally online, and sometimes include podcasts, chat sessions and online tutorials with students in another country. ACU provides the majority of the subjects with Fairfield University in Connecticut and York University in Toronto also involved. ACU has obtained laptops with Internet access for the students and they now have the world at their liberated fingertips.
I help facilitate the virtual class room, assisting with academic English and liaising with course providers. Of course, as I have found before as a volunteer, I get back much more than I put in. What a tonic for the spirit it is to engage with such a vibrant and joyous group of young people refusing to have their spirit broken or their optimism quenched by decades of oppression! Think about a young fatherless boy in a refugee camp polishing his English skills by listening to an audio version of Harry Potter read by Stephen Fry. He now speaks English with a touch of class and prefers the audio version to the film because of the power of the language. During the same period he taught himself to play the violin and dreams of being able to play Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.
On Easter Sunday, a student spoke passionately to me about how dehumanising it is to be treated as objects by some NGOs and researchers. “We are people too, we are all part of the world!” ACU’s Diploma of Liberal Arts aims at providing the students with the knowledge and skills to put themselves in the driver’s seat.
Dr Rosaleen Smyth is currently in her second placement with Palms, having previously volunteered in Tanzania. Her parents and her brother have also volunteered with Palms in PNG.