I initially became involved in TASSEL as a freshman in high school looking for a volunteer organization that I could dedicate my time. TASSEL Florida was relatively small as it was in its first year, but I began my time as a writing instructor. Every year since I have been grading paragraphs and essays, and I couldn’t be happier to help improve my students’ writing. I enjoyed reading my student’s stories about their families and time at school, as it was apparent that they made a huge effort just to learn English on top of their everyday schedule. Wishing to help out more when the writing ended for the season, I decided to commit time in the summer of my freshman year to visit Cambodia and personally connect with the students and Khmer teachers. Now a junior, I continue working closely with TASSEL as the new Florida chapter president and continuing writing instructor, as well as spearheading the emerging New Jersey chapter.
I enjoy reading my student’s paragraphs and essays the most because their responses to the prompt always provide insight about their personalities, and I feel connected to my students through them even though we are thousands of miles away. New to this past year, I was glad to actually receive a picture of my students, and I know the rest of our writing teachers sent pictures of themselves with little crafts they made as well.
Every year I’ve been to Cambodia, the reality of the grave circumstances these families are in is never easy to ingest. Seeing the Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng for the second time is as horrifying as seeing it for the first time, and will likely never be any less after the tenth or fifteenth time. To be able to stand in the atrocities that took place decades ago–and to hear the stories of those who have suffered directly and indirectly from the Pol Pot Regime–you can only internalize the pain of one individual to a certain degree. For each family visit, a new layer of sympathy is unveiled inside of me, as we listen to, cry with, and care for the families. Their strength is incomparable to anything I’ve ever witnessed, especially the children’s will to learn in order to better their and their family’s situation.
The first year I went to Cambodia to teach, I was overwhelmed with all of the love I received from the students, their families, and the Khmer teachers. Each day, the students would run to the vans to wave at us, showing us pictures they drew and flowers they gathered for the foreigners. I would leave each village with presents in my arms and a smile on my face, ready to come back for the next teaching day. On the very last day, we all cried and promised the kids we’d see them next year, and to my delight, I was able to. Upon my return, the students I taught last year all ran up to me as I gave them hugs and played games with them until class started. I was unable to teach them again, but the bonds we created last year remained with us, and still do.
This year, however, a particular moment has stayed with me to this day: one of my students asked me the difference between a house and a home. My initial thoughts were that there is no difference, but after considering what I think to be home, I was able to say that a home is a place that you emotionally connect to, rather than a place that you reside in. I was able to explain to her that to me, Cambodia has become my second home. My students continue to impress me with their dedication to learning English in addition to their regular school classes and caring for their family, and I know they continue to strive for greatness since the last time I held their hands wishing them the best.
While the students work hard, the effort and commitment shown by Joji and the teachers at TASSEL are unbelievable. The teachers work hard to teach the curriculum, all while continuing to learn the complexities of the English language themselves. The dedication they put into TASSEL gives it a sense of unity and enjoyment when it comes to learning and is truly inspiring. Joji has been a wonderful example of a hard-working and kind-hearted soul that has inspired the volunteers around the world to work hard for the students and teachers.
As our chapter grew, we were able to connect around sixty students throughout the last school year to teach virtually. Last year during the summer, Claudia and I led a group of nine and to our amazement, brought over a thousand articles of clothing to donate to TASSEL’s students. Our amazing TASSEL volunteers, whether they taught throughout the year, or just helped with fundraising, got their communities involved in the clothing drive so we could maximize our donations to show our appreciation for the students and their hard work. The Florida chapter continues to grow through word of mouth and donation drives, and we are grateful for every volunteer that wishes to help in any way available to them.
TASSEL’s ability to invoke a sense of passion for serving those willing to meet you halfway by walking great distances through rain or shine resonates throughout local communities, whether they’re located in the States, Europe, or Asia. Truly an eye-opener for those with time and dedication to improving Cambodia’s status quo, TASSEL is a once in a lifetime opportunity to connect students worldwide to a mission worth working toward both remotely and locally. I hope to continue working closely with TASSEL in any way possible to spread its mission to those who are able to be touched by its cause.