During Global Citizenship Week, which is what they now call Week Without Walls, I went up to Chiang Rai for the Maekok Village Trip. The trip consisted mostly of two activities, constructing a multi-purpose area for the school as well as teaching groups of kids some basic English terms in categories such as the alphabet, numbers, body parts, and etc. The trip format seemed basic enough and I felt assured that I would be able to head there, get to be part of something good and get some much needed Service hours in order to complete the CAS portion of my IB Diploma. What I found in Maekok was not at all what I expected and I found myself really reflecting on the realities of rural Thai society, the worth of “Global Citizenship Week”, and often the possible futility in our attempts to do good in the world. Maekok was for me, at once both emotionally and intellectually frustrating as I wrestled with all the implications and lasting effects of what we were trying to achieve there. It was an experience that is difficult to put into words but here I’ll try to make my best attempt at explaining what the Maekok experience was for me.

The frustration that I mentioned above stemmed from my increasing awareness of the futility of what we were teaching the kids. ISB students, most of us without any prior teaching experience, were sent to help educate school children voluntarily to increase their English speaking capabilities. To do this we organized activities and games associated with a given topic to which we then attempted to teach to them. These teaching opportunities were enthusiastically taken by the students and there was definitely some degree of retention but again I began to critically think about what real impact we were having on the kids. Although certain topics seemed pretty important such as the Alphabet or Numbers in creating some sort of framework of knowledge most of the topics were largely irrelevant like sports or fruits and vegetables. What I feared most was that we even with the best of intentions we were simply wasting the children’s time. Even if any of the knowledge we taught them is retained through to adulthood, which is honestly unlikely, then what are we really accomplishing here?. Even if some of the kids were able to remember our lessons the next day or even the week after that there doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that they would actually remember anything by next month or next year.

In addition to this I began to learn more and more about the conditions and the environment in which these kids live in which this was very emotionally straining. The children receive no formal education at the school and even the teachers often skip class leaving the children sitting in teacher-less classrooms or roaming around the school grounds. In their home lives and school lives they are often subject to corporal punishment and physical abuse. If these kids can’t even get teachers and parents who believe in them then how are they supposed to motivate themselves? What kind of educational environment do these kids experience on a day to day basis? According to the principal, the percentage of students who go on to graduate is around 1%. To say that is disheartening would be an understatement when personally, I have seen kids who despite all their setbacks in life were still so motivated to learn even without any social pressure. To see this level of internal motivation in kids so young while knowing that despite this they would be unlikely to even graduate was something that deeply affected me.

This segues pretty well into my reflecting on what it means to be a global citizen. That is one of the purposes of our education in ISB, to mold us into global citizens. Global citizenship week is one of the unique opportunities that we have to encourage learning in this regard and promote global citizenship. However, I feel that this school fails really to inform most of the student body about our capabilities as global citizens. It’s important to understand how much change we are making in our society and in what ways we are changing society as well as undertaking the action itself. It’s not enough for a student to go on these trips to get community service hours and give themselves a pat on the back thinking “I really made a difference”. To see thinking like that is very frustrating for me because it is so arrogant to presume that we can dedicate only a week of our lives to something and assume that we have achieved some sort of lasting impact. I think it should be the responsibility of the instructors and of the school administration to remind students that if they really care about being global citizens then they can’t just do charitable work once a month or sell cookies in a bake-sale and I’m not trying to say that their intentions aren’t good but students should know that real change comes from sustained action and continued participation. If one truly wants to see something change for the better then they really need to dedicate themselves and put time and effort into making that change happen. 100 schools doing the Maekok village trip a year isn’t going to solve the factors at the root of the problem in rural Thailand much less our school doing a single trip yearly. ISB’s efforts to promote global citizenship can’t just be about these one week trips or even the community service clubs present during the school year, it has to be about cultivating a real sense of our role and our capability to induce change in the world while reminding us about what meaningful change really is and what it requires. ISB can’t promote this lifestyle where global citizenship is an afterthought but rather where it serves as a focal point to where our lives are heading in the future.

That isn’t to say that the Maekok Village trip is a bad trip at all, as I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. It had been a while since my world view has been challenged to this degree and I definitely cherished the opportunity to learn and grow as a person. What I’m in a sense afraid of is that others will finish this trip feeling glad about what we’ve accomplished by building this MPB building or having a good time with the kids. They’ll leave feeling that ultimately they’ve done some sort of great service to these kids while I feel that the lasting impact of Maekok will ultimately be on us. The trip serves to educate us and present us with the lifestyle of the rural Thai villages and of our role as global citizens. Although I’d like to think of the kids we’ve met to remember us in the far future or to take our experiences with them as motivations to succeed I feel as if I can’t quite believe us to have been so spectacular. I can’t be so arrogant to presume that because we’ve seen these children for less than a week we’ll be able to encourage to graduate from school and help their society. That again isn’t to say that some of these children won’t potentially do that, as many of them seem very clever and talented but what I’m illustrating is that we unfortunately won’t be the catalyst for that change. What this trip has ultimately done is made us ,who will almost definitely will graduate from high school and most likely university, more aware of the problem of substandard primary education and the lifestyle of people in rural areas. We, who in the future will be probably be in positions to help those in our local communities and be able to spend their time and money on social causes will remember the lessons learned from Maekok and our education at ISB.