Samantha Thornley - 2009 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

During my last year at university I became involved with the Center for Community Service, simply because I was looking for a work study job. I became involved with their Alternative Spring Break program and joined them for a week in Jamaica helping to build a playground at a primary school, while also teaching kids their lessons for the week. Although the adventure lasted only seven days, it left a gaping hole in my heart. The hospitality and graciousness of the Jamaican people of St. Elizabeth opened my mind to a whole world that I didn't know existed.

Having never previously been out of the country, I came home from that trip knowing that I couldn't just graduate from college and get a job, or work up some sort of corporate ladder. I had to get on a plane and see what else was out there; it is an insatiable desire that to this day still runs through my bones.

International teacher eating dinner with Vietnamese students
Home cooked meal with (and by) my students.

Why did you choose Teachers for Vietnam?

It takes a lot of research to find the right program. Upon graduating college, I didn't have an income or savings to provide for much. I knew that the right program would have to be inexpensive and supportive, since I had a minimal amount of travel experience. It would be a plus if the program offered a stipend or living costs, but as I quickly began to see, many required an expensive application fee without a lot of the added benefits I had hoped for.

I was drawn to going to Asia, but I was quickly becoming discouraged about the entire idea. Then I found Teachers for Vietnam. With a small application fee, they promised airfare reimbursement, health insurance, living quarters, and a comparable stipend for the area. Financially, it ticked off all of the boxes and no other organization compared. But I didn't know anything about Vietnam, and it didn't dazzle me as much as Thailand or Japan, both of which have robust, but costly, English teaching programs.

Weeks later, I had still not found another program that offered as much of a hand and as much as a safety net as Teachers for Vietnam. I began correspondence with their Director and was pleasantly surprised as the responses were personable and timely. I quickly began to realize that this organization fit all of my requirements and then some, and I decided to take a chance on a country that I knew nothing about.

What was your favorite part about Vietnam?

After years of experience and travel behind me now, I can say that Vietnam remains my favorite country. The hospitality of the Vietnamese consistently amazed me - a white girl who couldn't speak the language, drive a motorbike, or even stand to look at chili peppers. On paper, Vietnam and I were a far cry from a perfect match, but I was welcomed with open arms anyway. Not a day went by where I felt unsafe, not taken care of, or unsupported. I received wedding invitations, trips to students' hometowns, a ride to the doctor after a small bike accident (with no one who spoke English), and medicine when my stomach was acting up.

Although ultimately failing to learn one of the (seemingly) most difficult foreign languages, the sing-song speak quickly became music to my ears and I picked up on words well enough to get by, and started nonverbal relationships with others when words failed (like the toothless lady on the corner who sold me bánh chuối chiên, my favorite after school snack). This level of kindness and welcoming from others was something that I never experienced in America, and I was grateful every day to be surrounded by so much love in such foreign surroundings.

International teacher with primary students in An Giang, Vietnam
Primary students in An Giang, during a 2015 visit representing Teachers for Vietnam

What made your experience teaching abroad unique?

I lived in Can Tho, a large city in the Mekong Delta that's not quite as traveled to as HCMC or Hanoi, but larger than nearby rural towns, such as An Giang or Rạch Giá. Without having to live in the hustle bustle with other tourists or feel lonely in an isolated town, Can Tho provided the best of both worlds, plus easy access to either. Can Tho also gave me easy access to the famed floating markets, and being on the Mekong River brought academic and professional researchers that as an English teacher in another city, I probably wouldn't have encountered.

My mind was constantly opened to new ideas, new people, and new places, with every corner of Vietnam welcoming me with open arms.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

My local Teachers for Vietnam contact in Can Tho was An, and I couldn't have survived the foreign transition without her. She helped me get a phone and SIM card, showed me how to exchange money (at a gold store for the best rates!), where to shop for food, plus Vietnamese phrases to stay away from if you can't pronounce correctly (in order to save me immense embarrassment). If I had a question, she answered right away, and if I needed help translating, I could hand a stranger my phone and trust that she was handling the situation from afar. As time went on, my students became close allies in helping to support me as well, but An became, and to this day remains, a close friend.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

If I could do anything differently, I'd spend even more time with my students. I knew as a teacher I'd be influencing lives, but I had no idea how much my students would influence mine. I was proud of myself for going above and beyond to spend time with them outside of the classroom; whether they came over and cooked dinner, took me home to meet their family, or beat me on the soccer field, I knew I was having an experience that was more unique than others teaching in a bigger city, where it can be easier to spend time with other foreigners and attend more expat events, restaurants, or bars.

But, sometimes I just wanted to be by myself, take a break from speaking broken English, constantly putting a smile on my face even if they days were hard, and being someone constantly looked up to. A weekend alone, on the road, or with other foreigners was a refuge. And I stand by that as sometimes being a necessity to living abroad. But as soon as I came back to America, I sorely wanted more time with my students. Another trip to a pagoda, a wedding, a new year's celebration, or anything to immerse me in a strange culture. If I could go back today, I'd spend as much time as possible with my students and local community.

Students at Can Tho University
Class photo shoot at  Can Tho University

Describe a typical day in your life in Vietnam.

A typical day consisted of waking up early (it's way too hot to sleep in) and riding my bike to university for an early morning class. The school closed during lunch hours, so I would either go to their computer lab to work on grading or lesson planning, head to a coffee shop to do the same, or go home to rest, and of course eat lunch. Typically I'd teach another class or two at university in the afternoon, and if I was lucky, have coffee or dinner with students after class.

Occasional nights were spent at a private school in the countryside, where I taught English on the side. On homework days, I'd have grading to do, and often spent time with other foreign teachers grading, grabbing delicious dinner, or making a American meals with the ingredients we could find, if we were so craving.

Days off offered immense flexibility; travel to different towns, spend time with students, lesson plan and grade, explore the city, or stay home and watch the pirated DVDs of Friends. And lots of reading thanks to a communal bookshelf in the teachers housing. Teaching was a priority, but exploring was top second, tied with taking care of ourselves in a faraway land and binge watching TV, if that was necessary.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time most?

Teaching was a unique opportunity to learn from the Vietnamese community, but my free time was a brilliant way to take advantage of the abroad experience. Spending quality time with students outside of the classroom offered a new perspective on their lives and how they lived day-to-day. Traveling to nearby towns and countries, I was able to see a part of the world most folks I knew had not yet explored. In-between semesters I was fortunate enough to take a solo backpacking trip through Southeast Asia and my life is forever changed by those experiences.

The best way to fill my free time was playing soccer with my students, singing karaoke with my new friends, bargaining at the local market, and other activities that made me uncomfortable, nervous, and vulnerable; that's when the real work began.

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

Teachers for Vietnam set me up in university housing, in a row of apartments next to other foreign teachers and students. Aside from a lack of air conditioning (which they now provide) it had all of the basic amenities I needed: running water, fans, cooking supplies, door locks, wireless internet (although spotty), and even a bicycle! I loved being in a gated community both with other foreigners and other Vietnamese who were employed by the university. It created a small community that I felt safe in.

I sometimes ran laps around the neighborhood (as a form of exercise which not many understood) and saw kids playing tennis or basketball, families cooking dinner, and the most beautiful sunsets. One day (although not the norm) I even came home to a monkey playing in my front yard! Because of the diversity of the University property, I had the opportunity to have two roommates from Germany, then two from Thailand, and even time to live by myself for a few weeks. Words of wisdom: always, ALWAYS, pick the upstairs room if you live in the Delta and you suspect your house may be susceptible to flooding!

An Thới, Vietnam
Island traveling to An Thới

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

Living in a foreign country is not always easy, and living in a developing economy such as Vietnam, especially in the Delta, provides unique struggles that not every program can foresee or handle from afar. If you are flexible and patient, the Executive Director can and will do anything he can to help you assimilate, help manage your relationships with faculty, or anything else you may need, but the program can't control the timeliness or productivity of said faculty or school. Some struggles will be easily solved and other will be learning opportunities, but the individual has to be willing to see them as such.

Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?

After I returned to America, life as I know it had changed, but my surroundings remained the same. Sure, I had missed parties and birthdays, and I was "behind" in my career or dating life compared to my peers, but my friends were very much living the same life and mine had changed in a way I couldn't explain. Although there were times in Vietnam where I sat online for hours to chat or Skype with friends and family I sorely missed, I now missed my friends and family abroad.

I couldn't imagine going back to life pre-Vietnam, although I tried. I went back to my city, lived in the neighborhoods that I loved, and even rekindled an old flame, but I wasn't the same person. My mind had been expanded to encompass more of the world than I had previously understood, and I did not want to stop learning. I ultimately enrolled in graduate school, earning a master's degree in nonprofit management - a career which I continue to this day - and found new cities, travel opportunities, passions, and love.

My time in Vietnam and work with Teachers for Vietnam made me hungry for the world, and eager to do good in it.

Would you recommend Teachers for Vietnam to others? Why?

Absolutely, without hesitation. Teachers for Vietnam provided me with the support, both financially and emotionally, that I needed to succeed on this journey and I would do it again in a heartbeat.