Challenging university students to make a difference in the world can be complicated. They’re swamped with the big concerns of finding a good job and paying a HECS debt.
So when universities offer other tasks, students expect it will amount to something in their degree. Well, not always.
The University of Notre Dame Sydney is running hugely successful practical outreach programs based on intangible rewards, self-funding from students and travel in their own time and many former Archdiocese of Sydney secondary students – and some teachers – have stepped up to the life-changing immersion – ‘Experience the World’.
The ‘Experience the World’ program has just been given a $200,000 grant from the Federal Government and trips to the region next year are already fully recruited, with several scholarships awarded from this fund to help students become more aware of Australia’s place in Asia.
An organiser Dr Sean Kearney, Associate Dean in the School of Education, said many students pay their own fare and all go during semester break.
“None of the trips is professional experience placements, they’re not getting hours towards their degrees for teaching in schools – this is not about them going over and learning how to teach, this is about us going over and helping to provide a service,” said Dr Kearney.
School of Arts students have been placed in disadvantaged areas overseas (e.g. East Timor, Kenya, India) and in Australia (Redfern), although the program to Kenya was cancelled this year due to security concerns.
(The university’s School of Medicine also runs a Medical Immersion Program in The Philippines).
Ashlee Wilson, former Brigidine College Randwick student is enrolled as a Primary school teacher majoring in Religious Education and did the 2014 Kenya trip.
Ashlee has just been awarded a scholarship to go to a small town in India late this year. She will help at an extremely disadvantaged school for children at Vijawada.
“I don’t want to be the stereotypical teacher and teach just the curriculum, I want to bring this experience to these children – I want to teach them about the global community – there’s so much out there that we need to learn about – human rights, environmentalism,” she said.
“Brigidine was very big on social justice… that began the journey to where I am now,” said Ashlee.
Matthew Gardiner is another student Primary teacher who also did the 2014 Kenya trip, he’s an old boy of Marist College North Shore (Year 7-9) and then St Joseph’s College Hunters Hill.
He worked with Ashlee at the Holding Hands Children’s Orphanage in Kenya and taught during that country’s school holidays with 30-45 children per class (such is the popularity of the Notre Dame students).
“The types of classrooms we saw over there were the types you would have seen in Australia in the 1950s, single file tables, all desks facing the front, a blackboard and no technology, the students didn’t have their own pens and limited paper,” said Matthew.
“We changed the layout of the classroom so that they were working in groups, which worked well for the creative arts lessons,” he said.
Matthew said the children waited each day outside their orphanage for the student teachers and would walk with them to their school.
“I also remember we spent three hours in the hot sun playing soccer,” he smiled.
Joseph Abdo, former student of De La Salle Ashfield is a psychology student and said his trip to Kenya in 2014 gave him an inner satisfaction to contribute something small to facilitate learning and education.
“If you go outside your comfort zone it will push you to learn more, to do more, and you do become wiser and more aware,” he said.
“My school’s motto was “Esto vir” – be the best you can be – so that adds to my sense of contribution to the community,” said Joseph, who’s about to make his first trip to India with Ashlee and 15 other students, ten on scholarships.
Dr Kearney said ‘Experience the World’ programs started at the university in 2011 with 21 students after an inspirational talk by “So They Can”Chief Executive Officer Cassandra Treadwell.
Dr Kearney said he and two colleagues took their first cohort of students in 2011 to Kenya (these trips will now go to Timor Leste). Then, the following year he helped organise annual trips to India to a home for disadvantaged Dalit (untouchable) children in Tenali in Andhra Pradesh.
“In January 2014 we took 10 students to visit the children’s home and on their return set up the Dayanani Foundation to build a school there. Now 30 children are attending and being housed nearby,” said Dr Kearney.
Students do a unit in service learning to prepare for a trip.
“It’s a life changing experience, student teachers get to see the value of education in places where education isn’t readily available,” said Dr Kearney. “They recognise the value of the vocation that they are going into,” he added.
He said the Indian school they have visited is extremely disadvantaged and there is much discrimination caused by the caste system.
“The differences with other programs is that we are building lasting relationships with schools – it’s not a one off – it’s a continuing relationship and reciprocal based on their needs not what we want to do,”
There’s also a health clinic in Kenya and medical students go along to do basic health checks on the children. In addition, a student filmmaker has done a trip to create a documentary.
Next year, the university is launching “In the World for the World” to encourage all its university schools to look for opportunities for their students to make a difference.
Mary MacKillop Catholic College Wakeley teacher Natalie Caparotta said she went in 2011 to Kenya as a mature age student of the university because she’s always been drawn to social justice.
Now as Acting Assistant English Coordinator and Drama Teacher, Ms Caparotta said she went again in 2014 as a volunteer with university staff. She said she, too, was inspired by the talk by Ms Treadwell in 2010.
“…And my involvement with the program began!” she said.
Her service work in Kenya included cleaning classrooms in Aberdare Rangers Primary School and helping with the cooking at the nearby orphanage.
“Once you see some of the things, you can’t ‘unsee’ them or ‘unexperience’ them, it reaches your soul in so many ways,” said Ms Caparotta.
She said most of the children came from the displaced people’s camp.
“Their uniform is their prized possession so they never take it off,” she said.
The Notre Dame students teach singing, art and games because the Kenyan curriculum is focused on rote learning and quiet, individual effort.
“So having the opportunity to play and create is something very different,” said Ms Caparotta.