It all started with a flat tire. Sarah Wood (grad 2022) was on her way to tour Ambrose University in Calgary to see if she wanted to attend there after graduation. But when their car got a flat tire on the way, Sarah took it as a sign. A sign that she wasn’t meant for university quite yet, that she should go out in the world and try something different.
While she loved growing up and living in Saskatchewan, she had always felt a curiosity to see what else was out there, to view life from another perspective. She had been looking forward to ALSO trips with RJC to give her that experience, but the pandemic put a pause on international travel while she was a student. “It felt like something was missing. I still didn’t have that experience,” Sarah said. So she took the flat tire as a sign she should do it now.
Shortly afterwards Jeanette Hanson, director of international witness at Mennonite Church Canada came to speak at Sarah’s church. Sarah approached her afterwards about what opportunities there might be to serve internationally after graduation. That conversation set plans in motion and last October Sarah arrived in Thailand for a five month term volunteering as an English teacher in Loei, Thailand, a province in the north- eastern part of the country. She worked with students from Kindergarten to Grade 4 in Narada Kindergarten and Primary schools. The schools are connected with the Friends of Grace Church Association, which was started by Tom and Christine Poovong, long- term workers in Thailand with Mennonite Church Canada.
For Sarah it’s been an opportunity to see the world through a different lens as well as to grow and learn more about herself. In the placement she had the opportunity to try out teaching. Coming from a family full of teachers she is hesitant to admit it, but she’s enjoyed teaching a lot more than she expected. “I just had a really good experience with the teaching part of things,”she says.
“I thought it was going to be very, very difficult to teach English to students who speak Thai, they speak a language I don’t understand.” And while it took some getting used to she was able to communicate with the students and see their progression in real time. And her own experience trying to learn Thai gave her increased patience and understanding for the major task of learning a new language.
Living alone in an unfamiliar place also taught Sarah a lot about herself. “I’ve definitely learned as an independent person how to be more dependent on others,” she says. Living alone in a community without many English speakers has meant she’s relied on others for things like getting food or transportation. “That’s definitely been a lot of learning that I had to do, and just patience. To live your life relying on someone else requires a lot of patience. And I’m just thankful that people have been so good to me,” she says.
For Jeanette that is why exchange experiences like this are so important, especially for younger people. “I think that it is so formational,” she says. “When you are in a place that is cross-cultural, people are speaking a language that you are struggling to learn a little bit of, and the culture is very different, you are not in control of your own life in the way that you are when you’re in a place of comfort. And I think that God can really teach us when we are in places like that, in ways that we can’t learn when we have more control.” And having that experience as a young person, like Sarah, means that you’ll carry it through your whole life.
For Tom Poovong, a Mennonite Church Canada witness worker in Thailand together with his wife Christine, the connections built through placements like Sarah’s serve to strengthen the church both at home in Canada and in Thailand. “My hope and my desire is to create an atmosphere in the field to help our young people from our home church and our partner churches to come to see what God is doing in other parts of the world,” he says. And seeing young volunteers coming from Canada also inspires young people from the local churches to become leaders and contribute more to their own churches.
When looking back at her path to coming to Thailand, Sarah doesn’t think she would be there without her experience at RJC. She might not have considered an opportunity like this without being at a school where students hear about international service, and are given opportunities to be part of it. Where they’re encouraged to think about the difference they can make in the world. “I feel like it’s definitely helped me and given me the push I needed to come and do this,” she says. “We learned about these things in class… the impact that we can have as humans and that we’re not too young. Yes, we’re just one speck in the world, but no one is too small to do big things.”