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Nathalie Piquemal: Making a Difference Through International Service Learning in Ethiopia

February 8, 2012 — 


February 5 – 11, 2012 is International Development Week (IDW). During IDW Canadian development communities are highlighting and connecting the international work of Canadians to the larger community. As part of IDW, The Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC) has recognized Dr. Nathalie Piquemal’s Service Learning course Cross-cultural Teaching and Learning in Ethiopia for the difference it makes in the empowerment of women and girls with a video.

This course provides education students the opportunity to travel and work closely with the non-governmental organization (NGO), Canadian Humanitarian Organization for International Relief (CHOIR), in schools and learning centres that are under the umbrella of CHOIR.  

In the CHIOR schools and learning centres, education students have had the opportunity to work closely with teachers, students and their families in a way that benefits a community that is plagued by poverty.

While donating time to people who struggle with multidimensional poverty, such as housing, health, famine, schools’ lack of pedagogical and human resources in all subject-areas, students have learned invaluable cross-cultural skills. The cross-cultural skills include a broader appreciation of cross-cultural issues in their own and in other cultures, as well as an enhanced sense of global citizenship, while responding to the schools’ requests to help gain more sustainable knowledge and resources about student-centred pedagogy. The result has been a genuine reciprocity based on trust and a commitment between all participants, making this a rewarding experience on both the levels of service and learning.

The Student Perspective:
Education graduate student, Nicole Robidoux shares her story and reflects on her role as a teacher in Ethiopia and on the topic of global responsibilities.

With a background in software application and physical education, I was apprehensive about the impact I was going to have. Even if the need for computer literacy is obvious, I wondered how I could benefit them. In terms of physical education, space limitations as well as large groups and a wide range of ages were undoubtedly going to pose additional challenges. So I forged ahead, in the hope that I could incorporate my expertise with teaching English and numeracy. But no amount of prior planning could have made the task foolproof. Until we actually set foot in the centres and spoke with the teaching staff, we were uncertain as to how to proceed. Flexibility in the teaching profession is one of the greatest assets a teacher can possess and this was never as clear to me as it was when this cultural learning experience began. Working as a team, we were able to modify and adapt activities and at times, completely rewrite the script on the spot. But working with such motivated and engaged students proved to be the only factor that mattered. Whatever we set before them, the children of Ethiopia welcomed us and worked hard at completing the tasks as best they could. The Ethiopian students were filled with exuberance and regardless of their limited English vocabulary; their enthusiasm and smiles spoke volumes.

Having been assigned to one of four learning centres, lessons in math, English, drama, music, physical education and art, were delivered and enthusiastically accepted by both students and teachers alike. The children’s faces shone with excitement, filled with hope and desire. These bright stars were a motivating sight and everyone was literally carried away with emotion. We witnessed something rare and beautiful: a passion for learning and a deep appreciation for education. These young people taught us so much as they were given the opportunity to showcase what they do best, strive to learn.

They exemplified a strong sense of community and showed affection naturally and with ease. Greeted by welcoming attitudes, we learned so much from such great people. We walked away from this experience being richer and fuller than we could have ever dreamed possible.

Living in the west we are sheltered from many of the difficulties faced in Ethiopia. It would be easy to return to Canada and continue as if none of this had happened. I could block out the suffering and continue my life as before. Day after day, month after month, year after year, I could live my life as a mother, wife, sister, friend, and teacher and remain oblivious to what life is like in a country not so far away. That may appear easy, but in fact, I believe the opposite is true. How an experience such as this cannot change a person dramatically is beyond my comprehension. My sense of responsibility to the developing world has been heightened and I can no longer ignore the fact that we Canadians are responsible to help and to initiate change, however small that may be. No step taken towards reducing poverty and providing an education to all is without value.

The lessons learned in Ethiopia remain very real and vivid. It is my goal that as time passes; I will not let these memories fade. Having travelled and lived among Ethiopians is a powerful and meaningful experience and I believe that we are changed people – changed for the better. The impact these experiences have had on us will remain forever. Let us not let time erase the footprints Ethiopia and its people have had on us. We are all the better for having been part of their extended family.

Dr. Nathalie Piquemal is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba and is the course instructor for the International Service Learning: Cross-cultural teaching and learning in Ethiopia. The next intake for this service learning course is in 2013.

Dr. Piquemal can be reached at piquemal [at] cc [dot] umanitoba [dot] ca


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