Teaching the value of learning

Recognizing my privilege and acknowledging the need for universal education

Lucy Tu, Co-Editor-In-Chief

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In my sophomore year, I joined TASSEL: Teaching and Sharing Skills to Enrich Lives,  an organization that focuses on utilizing English education to transform the lives of rural Cambodians.

In the late 1900s, Cambodia suffered through the Khmer Rouge Massacre. According to BBC News, an estimated two million were killed, many of whom were scholars, leaving the next generation in desperate need of educational resources.

Every week, I tutored a Cambodian teacher-in-training named Sophea via webcam. As the months went on, our lessons evolved from merely grammar review. Whether we debated homemade slingshots or shared favorite holiday dishes (his: kralan cake, mine: mashed potatoes), our conversations bridged our geographical divide and gave me an insight into his life.

During one lesson, Sophea and I were discussing school. He detailed his educational journey, made difficult by a lack of resources and teachers in his home village. When asked about my school, I showed him a photo of the building, the front entryway gleaming with glass panels and a giant “Millard North” sign that embodied grandeur. 

“You’re very lucky to go there.”

“I guess. I’ve never thought about it before.”

Silence. 

Only after the words came out of my mouth did I realize how ignorant I sounded. Searing with red-hot embarrassment at my own shallowness, I ended class early. Although the dialogue had been a mere 10 seconds, at the core of the conversation was an undeniable truth — Sophea’s understanding of the power of education in transforming lives stood in sharp contrast to my ignorance of my own privilege.

I attend a well-funded school where I am surrounded by teachers who value my education and have the resources to bolster my learning. During my conversation with Sophea, I realized that having these privileges for so many years resulted in me becoming accustomed to them, so much so that I’d forgotten that another world outside of my bubble exists.

According to a 2018 report by the United Nation Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), an estimated 264 million children worldwide do not attend school, primarily due to a lack of teachers, school buildings, or other financial resources needed to sustain quality education. 

The fact that I and many of my peers do not have to question our privileges is simply evidence for their existence. What I told Sophea that day was the truth. No, I hadn’t previously thought about how lucky I am to have certain educational opportunities–but my education shouldn’t be a catalyst for my ignorance.

During our final class, I asked Sophea what he hoped to do in the future. Almost immediately, he replied that his dream was to immigrate to the U.S. to pursue teaching. As Sophea described his dream, his eyes lit up and his smile widened. 

“I want to come to America, but I have a responsibility to stay here; I have a duty to these children. If all the teachers leave, there could be no school, and I’m going to help these kids learn first.”

Sophea’s smile didn’t falter for a second.

Two years later, I watched Sophea teach one of his first classes. He introduced me to his students as “Teacher Lucy” before beginning the lesson. In front of him sat 15 children who were learning how to spell their favorite foods in English. The look of unadulterated happiness on Sophea’s face mirrored my own expression. His smile was a reminder that true education is a product of the passion found in individuals like him.

Through the grainy video feed, I watched Sophea lead the students. During this class, I was the one learning.

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