GoAbroad Interview

Saskia Smuts - Program Assistant

Saskia Smuts - Program Assistant

After teaching English in Thailand and traveling everywhere from Italy to India, Saskia’s eyes were opened to many different ways of life and the true beauty of the world. Her travel experiences have shaped who she is today, and driven her to a career with TravelBud, which makes her extraordinarily passionate about helping others travel abroad successfully.

You met your partner Peter while teaching English in Thailand, so clearly teaching abroad has changed your own life greatly. How do you convey this life-changing opportunity to participants to prepare them for their trip?

Well Peter actually sent me over to Thailand to go and teach, he was the agent I went through in South Africa. He joined me several months after I left for Thailand and we taught together for almost a year. Together Petes and I really went through some ups and downs and faced some of the hardest challenges a relationship can go through. Looking back now, I don’t think Petes and I would have such a strong relationship, as we do, had it not been for our time together in Thailand.

International teachers with students in Ayutthaya, Thailand

Saskia and some of grade nine girls on a school outing to Ayutthaya

With anything in life, the most valuable advice that one can share with others is that which comes from personal experience.

You can’t prepare a teacher for what’s to come, if you haven’t taught yourself. It’s like a chef that only knows the theoretical aspect of cooking trying to prepare someone to walk into the kitchen and know how to cook, operate, and be ok with the crazy atmosphere that is cheffing.

I know the emotions behind leaving home, leaving everyone behind, and stepping into an unfamiliar environment. I’ve personally experienced everything our participants have or are going to experience. Our whole team has the advantage of already knowing what’s going to happen as each participant starts their journey, because we’ve all done exactly the same. We can explain things down to the absolute last detail, like what your bedroom will look like when you arrive, the classroom environment during the TESOL course, where to eat, what to avoid, fun lessons to teach, the best ways to get your class to participate in a lesson, and we can do all of this with confidence and assurance.

I had a life changing experience and when someone speaks to me about this experience you can hear, not just from what I’m telling you, but the tone of my voice, that these opportunities excite me, and that I get excited when speaking to someone who wants to embark on the same journey as I did. Of course, I also have hilarious and unbelievable moments which I experienced whilst in Thailand, and everyone who embarks on such a journey also does. But the best part about these experiences is getting to share these stories with other people and them thinking “Wow, I want to have my own stories like that.”

Girls in traditional Thai clothing for the King Narai Festival

Dressing up in traditional Thai clothes for the King Narai Festival - Saskia and her Chinese teacher/ housemate at the time

Why do you think Thailand is a uniquely great place to teach abroad?

The people make you feel like you are doing everyone the biggest favor in the world by being there and coming to teach English in their country. Even when I went to the supermarket there were people who I didn’t know, but probably were parents of students, that greeted me as a teacher or lecturer with the utmost respect. There’s an absolute generosity amongst all people in Thailand, and it’s something I haven’t experienced anywhere else in the world. Their nature to just give and give, and not expect anything in return; it is how I wish the whole world would live their lives, but only in Thailand.

If you’ve taught elsewhere in the world, as I have, you’ll know that the classroom environments are quite strict and structured and kept very professional. In Thailand, teaching English is like performing a well thought out script on stage. The crazier you are, the more you make yourself look like a fool, the more elaborate and exciting a lesson, the better. I made my classes spell out words with their bodies, created a “town” in my classroom through which they had to “drive” in order for them to learn directions, and sat in the “hair salon” where boys and girls explained what they were going to do with my hair to make me look pretty.

What do you think the most valuable thing about international travel is?

Definitely the respect you gain for different cultures, religions, and people. It takes away a certain narrow mindedness we all have before we’ve traveled to a different part of the world. It also brings about a lot of self-realization and soul searching.

Being removed from the comfort of a well known life and familiar people forces you to take a drastic look at yourself and who you are, and what it is that you want to do with your life and achieve.

You’ve spent time in India, Japan, and Italy. How do you use your own travel experiences to support participants before, during, and after their program?

Ive travelled to many destinations, and my favorite part about travelling is the preparation. I’m quite OCD when it comes to certain things, and this is actually my biggest advantage as a member of the TravelBud team. I easily see or know what still needs to be done, changed, arranged, and perfected in order for everything to go smoothly. Booking flights, filling out visa forms, the strictness and perfection which these things require are right up my ally. I can spend a whole day just looking through documents making sure everything has been done correctly, and though some might find this a bit strange, it brings me the biggest satisfaction!

But what my many travels have truly enforced within me is a lot of patience and tolerance. If an applicant needs to ask me the same question four or five times because of uncertainty or the need for reassurance (or even if it’s due to forgetfulness) I have absolutely no problem with that!

Visitors at the largest temple in Southern Thailand

Peter and Saskia at the largest temple in the South of Thailand

What does a typical day look like for a TravelBud participant?

A typical day in the life of a TravelBud participant is the best kind of day. It differs slightly between the different programs but each program involves a very similar routine. For Thailand, this is what a typical day looks like for one of our English teachers:

You wake up, get ready for school, hop on your scooter, maybe stop at the local market to buy an ice coffee and some delicious fruit, and then head to school. Before assembly starts in the morning you catch up with all the teachers in the office and make sure everything is ready for your first class.

Assembly usually involves prayers and announcements for the day. When I was teaching we used to have an English “word of the day” every morning, so each English teacher had a specific day they had to prepare a word of the day for, and help a different student practice explaining the word of the day to the rest of the school.

You teach between three and six lessons a day, so you have to make sure your energy levels are through the roof in order for all classes to be entertaining and hold the attention of your learners. Lunch break is an hour long and is usually spent in the school cafeteria where all sorts of delicious snacks and food can be bought at very cheap prices.

When you’ve finished your lessons for the day it’s straight home to get into some comfortable clean clothes and sometimes off to extra lessons for the evening. If you don’t teach extra lessons then it’s always fun to go to the night markets or the local park for some exercise. After a hectic day of teaching, especially in Thailand, just relaxing in an airconditioned room tends to be the biggest luxury in the world!

You joined the TravelBud team rather recently. How did you hear about the organization? What was your first impression?

I’ve known the TravelBud team since last year February and I’ve sat in on some of their meetings, but also helped out when Peter was away from the office by taking over his role. I guess I’ve always been part of the team, but more like a cheerleader on the sidelines and only recently have officially been asked to join the team. I’ve known about TravelBud when they started up, as my partner Peter also sent Liam and Stu to teach abroad, and he has always kept track of where they are in the world.

Since my first meeting with the TravelBud team after we got back from Thailand I’ve always felt big excitement for the company and what they have achieved and will achieve in the future. The TravelBud “aura” has always been a positive one and it excites me every morning when I wake up. It’s like working for a supportive and loving family, we’re all there for one another.

What inspires you in your daily work?

I quite easily adopt other people's emotions as my own. When I know someone’s getting on a plane and leaving for Thailand or Vietnam, or anywhere, tomorrow or today I get butterflies in my stomach like I had the day before I left for Thailand, and I experience the emotions they might be going through at that moment. I basically see myself in applicants’ shoes, nervous, excited, uncertain, and I try to be the anchor which they need now and that I needed before I left.

Saskia Smuts, Program Assistant for TravelBud

Saskia at a meeting

If you could teach in any of TravelBud’s program locations which one would you choose and why?

I would definitely apply for the Teach Columbia program. It’s new, it’s exciting, and it is an absolutely beautiful country that gives you an opportunity to explore South America, a continent that hasn’t really been as overexposed by teaching English abroad programs, so there’s a certain mystery behind it that intrigues me!

What makes the TravelBud team one-of-a-kind?

Most definitely our combination of personalities! Between all of us, we make a pretty rock solid and awesome team. I don’t think there’s anything that anyone can throw in our direction that we won’t be able to handle, because we have the best of all worlds

Something else that really makes us unique is the team's sense of humour. There’s always a joke being made or something to laugh about in the office; it always makes work fun and it really shines through in the work that we do.