Nepal! Land of Buddha’s birth and home to the mighty Mt Everest. It is a small rectangle of a country along India’s northeast border. It is also a place of tragedy and upheaval. Events like: the massacre of the royal family in 2001; the Maoist Revolution that lasted from 1996-2006; the devastating 8.0 earthquake in 2015 followed by hundreds of aftershocks…and this is just in the last 23 years. These and many other things have combined to keep Nepal a third world country.
My love of travel, combined with volunteering, has led me to new and interesting places on several continents, in vastly different countries. The experience of being embedded in a community, rather than being a tourist (although I love being a tourist too!) adds richness and understanding to the experience. Nepal has a long road to economic and physical recovery, but it is the most vulnerable of its population who can benefit from even the most minor hand up. Global Volunteers is working to be that small helping hand in Kathmandu.
Nepal will mark the first time I am not traveling alone to volunteer. My friend of 58 years, Mary Healy, is joining me and this will be her first volunteer experience in a foreign country.
Nepal has a population of approximately 29 million. Kathmandu is the nation’s capital and largest city and will be our home base. The overall literacy rate in Nepal was 65.9% in 2011. More than half of primary students do not enter secondary schools, and only one-half of those who attend complete secondary schooling. In addition, fewer girls than boys join secondary schools.
Our host in Nepal has invited Global Volunteers to help teach conversational English and business management, repair living and learning spaces, and provide support and training to marginalized women. Our host believes that education is the key to a better life for both adults and children.
Thanks to a generous baggage allowance, Mary and I were able to check not just our personal luggage, but two suitcases with over 60 pounds each of donated school supplies. There are too many generous individuals to name, but the donations ranged from children’s books, science toys, flash cards, maps, anatomy charts, to soccer balls and cash used to buy notebooks, writing utensils, and so much more. Our hosts were stunned at the bounty and the children were wide eyed and brimming with smiles.
Welcome to Kathmandu! This city of over a million people is crazy chaos, wrapped in dust, surrounded by glorious mountains, and dotted with beautiful temples. We immediately realized that it’s best not watch the traffic when being driven anywhere in Kathmandu. We gasped frequently on our ride from the airport, where we did not encounter a single traffic light, but swerved a dozen times to avoid near misses with oncoming rickshaws, motorcycles, and trucks, darting pedestrians, and a sleeping cow.
Our first day as pedestrians left us wondering if we would survive the weekend, let alone the next two weeks. With no traffic lights or stop signs and no good way of safely crossing a street, daily life became an adventure in vehicle and people dodging. As strangers in a strange land, we seemed more visible to drivers and we hoped that would be our salvation. And the dangers don’t just lie in crossing a street. Where sidewalks exist, they are often cracked, and the occasional gaping hole is not unheard of. Some of this condition can be chalked up to earthquake damage and the rest to a lack of resources for maintaining infrastructure. So don’t go gazing at your unique surroundings while walking. Stand still to do your gawking and picture taking!
On our third day in Kathmandu, we started our volunteer assignments. Mary would spend the next two weeks working with Nepali women who were denied an education in their youth, filling in for me at the business college during an illness, and finally, working with a rambunctious class of 5 year olds. Given this is her first travel volunteering experience, she adapted to each situation like a pro.
My assignment was to present a two week workshop of my own creation to students at Shivapuri Business College. Based on email conversations with the Global Volunteers Coordinator in Nepal, I prepared lesson plans that would enable the students to understand western business models, create a small business plan of their own, and enhance their critical thinking and presentation skills.
On our first day there were two classes of about 15 students each. Jeanette, my co-teacher and a PhD from Arizona, and I began by introducing ourselves and our backgrounds and asked the students to do the same. We also asked them to tell us what they hoped to do after graduation. Before I retired I had spent over 25 years as a commercial banker, so I was delighted to hear that several of the female students hoped to work for a bank. Two of them had already done internships with banks in Kathmandu. To my dismay, however, over the next two days our class sizes would shrink.
Almost all of the girls stopped coming over the next two days, along with several of the boys. It is not clear what their reasons were, but Jeanette and I surmised the following:
Speaking in class (even at the college level) is not common. Learning in Nepal is largely accomplished by listening to lectures, followed by reading and memorization, then testing.
While all of the students spoke some level of English, their comfort level for speaking in front of their classmates and two native English speakers was diminished. Lastly, the girls anxiety seemed to be heightened by the fact that they would also be speaking in front of the boys.
Our workshop was scheduled after the students’ regular class day. College classes run from 6:00 am to 10:00 am. Our classes ran from 10:00 to Noon and 1:00 to 3:00, and were voluntary, so there was no real barrier to the students just giving up. Jeanette and I are working with Global Volunteers and the college administrators on a plan to solve these issues for future workshops. For now, I’ll share our experience with the brave students who went the distance.
The work I designed for this class would require the students to think independently and critically, which would push them out of their comfort zones. I brought Business Planning material from home, along with sample business plans. Despite their enrollment in a business college, none of the students had ever seen a business plan, so our first day was spent reviewing the material. In order to have them practice their English and public speaking, each student read aloud a portion of the material, after which we discussed what it meant and how it fit into the business planning process. We discussed in class each student’s thoughts about what kind of business they would like to promote in their business plan. The point was not to come up with a business that would be wildly successful, but to understand the thought process that goes into launching a business. Many of the students in our classes would not likely be starting a business, but this work would prepare them for future job interviews. Understanding how businesses plan, and improving their presentation and English skills, would all add value for them as future employees or entrepreneurs.
Over succeeding days, each student wrote and presented a section of their individual business plans. This in turn sparked discussion about the pros and cons of the student’s plan. Often, one student came up with suggestions for a tweak to another student’s plan.
In week two, once all of the students had completed their business plans, they presented them in front of the class, using a white board, speaking in English, and taking questions from other students. To see the improvement in their presentation skills was by itself worth the trip across the world to work with them.
During the remainder of that second week, we worked on two additional projects. First, we provided information to help them create a polished CV (resume) for their future job searches. We talked about how researching a company’s business plan, financial statements, and leadership experience would help them stand out during interviews. For the second project, We presented them with a list of well know, successful companies that were started by the founders in their parents’ basements or garages, or in their college dorm rooms – companies like Mattel, Apple, Google, that had very modest beginnings. Each student selected a company, researched it, and during the last two days of the workshops, they each presented a synopsis of how the company started and the steps the founders took to grow and succeed. The increase in their levels of confidence, demeanor, and critical thinking skills, over just a two week period astonished us and spoke to their intelligence and determination.
One of the college administrators sat in on a class one day when the students were doing presentations. She was thrilled at seeing them in the front of the class room, speaking with confidence in English, and clearly knowledgeable of their material. She explained that this would be unusual in Nepali class rooms where the standard is teachers giving lectures, students listening in their seats. This was all the reward I would ever need for this work I love so much.
On our last day, some of the students posed with us for the requisite selfies, wished us safe travels, thanked us. But all I wanted to do was stay….stay so I could see them reach for the stars, start their careers, be happy and successful. But I will need to do that from afar, from my own happy life at home, or wherever I am in the world.
“It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I still have to go, the more there is to learn. Maybe that’s enlightenment enough; to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”
– Anthony Bourdain