Peace Corps Project Promotes Literacy

Life after graduation has been anything but uneventful for Lillian Nguyen, a UCR grad who went on to join the Peace Corps after graduating in June 2010.

Nguyen had first heard about the Peace Corps in high school, and the idea of one day joining sat quietly in the back of her mind until college. Nguyen notes, “[Peace Corps] just seemed like a natural step to take toward the type of well-traveled, conscientious and adventurous life I want to lead.”

Nguyen was assigned to Calabanga, Philippines, where she teaches English to first year students at a public high school. Before she was able to begin teaching, she had to live with two different host families and undergo two sessions of extensive training. For the first training, she lived with a host family in Olongapo City and learnt Tagalog, cultural customs and various technical training. For the second training she lived with a family in her permanent site in order to get acclimated to the specific community and its needs and customs.

The community she is based in is beautiful and sustains itself through fishing and rice farming. She describes the coast as being lined with mountains of dried fish and shrimp. The town center is filled with markets and street vendors, and miles of rice fields expand just beyond the houses.

Nguyen says that both of her host families were wonderful and generous, eager to share their traditions, food and time with her. Nguyen recalls, “My host mom and I had a daily ritual of walking back home from work together and then having some sweet breads over a cup of instant coffee. We would chat about the events at school or she would sometimes just point at objects around the house and repeat their names to me in Tagalog and Bikol.”

Her experience as an English teacher has at times been a struggle, but has been an rewarding experience overall. Nguyen found it difficult to become accustomed to the way things ran in her community, especially when it comes to what she can expect of her students. She says, “In the the American education system, there’s at least the pretense that students can leave all of their disadvantages at the door and learn for a solid hour, but in the Filipino system, you can’t ever forget the students’ backgrounds. Some boys miss school during harvest season because their parents need them to help with the work. Some students don’t come to school everyday because they can’t afford the fare for transportation. You can’t exactly be angry at students for non-attendance under these circumstances. Finding a balance between showing compassion and asking for accountability is a tough act for me.”

The little things however are what make the struggles worth it. Nguyen notes how satisfying it is to see how excited her students are to introduce her to their parents, or how rewarding it is when she witnesses their growth and accomplishments in their academics. Her relationship with her students has also grown stronger- initially they were shy and guarded around her, but now they talk and joke freely. She especially enjoys feeling connected to her community, being able to walk around the town and see familiar faces that greet her.

Recently, Nguyen embarked on a project she calls “Information Access for All,” which she hopes will leave a lasting impact on her community. Her goal is to improve the school’s library by soliciting books, weeding out outdated resources, labeling and digitally cataloging all items. The project is also incorporating library and project management workshops and library tours in order to increase the projects’ sustainability. Nguyen is trying to raise funds for her project, and says that she is at the beginning of her fundraising effort. She is hoping to raise $3,500 in donations abroad.

Nguyen says, “The project is especially important because most teachers don’t have access to a classroom set of books. We are the biggest high school in the community and to make sure that every student has access to a book, teachers move books from class to class or spend a lot of their own money to make copies for every student.“

She adds, “The lack of availability of books makes it totally possible for the majority of students to go through high school without ever reading a book in full. It’s my hope that a user-friendly and relevant collection paired with a welcoming environment will encourage students to pick up a book.”

Nguyen has seen the need of a library first hand after her classroom burned down due to faulty wiring. Because it was a Sunday, no one was at school, and luckily no one was harmed. Nguyen had to relocate to the library temporarily, where she now teaches by taping paper to the walls.

She says, “The students who are not in my class come up to the door in hopes of using the library only to see that it is occupied. Their appearances at the door remind me how important the library is in the day-to-day learning process at this school. Seeing them makes me even more anxious to get the library repaired, so that when my students finally have a classroom of their own again, the library will be more than ready to handle the needs of all students.”

As for her own future, Nguyen plans to travel more and eventually pursue  a masters degree in Intercultural/Non Profit communications. She hopes to one day work in international development.

For more information and to donate to Nguyen’s project, go to www.peacecorps.gov and Search ‘Nguyen’ under the ‘Donate to Volunteer Projects’ link.

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