By Maria Salve C. Vasquez
University of the Philippines-Los Banos
It felt like just yesterday when I chanced upon a shared Facebook post about a call for application for the Asia Pacific Youth Exchange (APYE) in Thailand. I was at first a bit hesitant to apply because I never heard of that program before. At the same time, however, I was also excited of the prospect of traveling and experiencing a totally different culture. So, I signed up for the program, had my interview, received my acceptance letter, paid my fees, booked my flight, and off I went to another country where I had one of the best two weeks of my life.
APYE’s first main event was the high-level forum held at the United Nations headquarters in Thailand. We spent the whole day listening to interesting discussions about Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the role of the youth in achieving the global goals. They invited speakers from different sectors. There were UN officials, government officials, private sector representatives, and social entrepreneurs. The talks were very insightful, and I couldn’t help but be inspired by the enthusiasm and of the work that the speakers do to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.
From the forum, I got an appreciation of the importance of the goals and the reasons the youth’s involvement matters.
It’s not just the discussions or the speakers that amazed me. The participants were a mixture of delegations from different countries. I met many passionate individuals. I may not be able to recall some of their names now, but I sure can remember their inspiring stories. I met participants who do volunteer works in their community. There were others who actively campaign for their advocacies, some who intend to build their own startups, others who want to be a diplomat someday, and a whole lot more.
After the forum, we went to another venue for the cultural village. Each country delegation was assigned a table for showcasing anything related to their home countries. We, the Filipino delegates, brought a lot of food, from Boy Bawang to the local delicacies of our provinces. We put so much effort in decorating our booth. We even created a miniature bahay kubo and hung banderitas of printed pictures of festivals and famous landmarks. It was so much fun visiting other booths and watching cultural performances. The event was a celebration of our diversity and it is a wonderful experience to just be there in that moment.
During the application process, we were asked about the SDGs that we would like to work on. My first choice was SDG4, quality education. The delegates were divided into groups according to their SDG of choice. I was fortunate to be assigned to SDG4B where I was able to work with five of the craziest and the best people I met in APYE. We made a very interesting team. We were a group of two Koreans, a Bangladeshi, a Pakistani, an Indian, and of course, me, a Filipino. We started working together during the leadership training, held at Bangkok University, where we were taught about lean startup canvas and design thinking, to name a few. The leadership training served as our preparation for the local immersion and project creation.
There were many delegation groups and several local immersion sites. Our team was assigned to Nong Sarai, Kanchanaburi which is approximately a three-hour-long drive from Bangkok. It was a huge agricultural town. They have sugarcanes, rice, banana, and many other crops. We arrived in the village early in the evening. I thought that we would just have dinner and go to our respective host families. I was surprised that local government officials, representatives of the host families, and other villagers were gathered in their financial center waiting for our arrival. They welcomed us with a sumptuous meal replete with a ceremony to wish us a safe and a fruitful stay in their community. In the ceremony, we queued in front of the seated elders who would tie a white string on our wrist. There was just one memorable incident. We were all startled when one of the elders shouted, “Sit down!” And there I learned that in those kind of activities, your level should not be higher than your elders and you should thus not stand up when they are seated because if you do so, you will be deemed disrespectful.
Local immersion is my favorite part of the whole APYE. I experienced how the locals lived and I also got the chance to interact with the Thai people. Our host mom was a very old lady. Since she didn’t speak English and I didn’t know how to speak Thai, except for “Khop khun ka,” “Sawadee ka,” and a few other words that I could not remember anymore, we relied on gestures and translation apps to communicate with each other. There were instances she would talk to us and gave us instructions, and we would make our best guesses of what she was trying to tell us. It is difficult to have a language barrier, but it gave me more reason to appreciate our host mom’s effort to make our stay as comfortable as possible.
I love the laidback and the tranquil atmosphere of Nong Sarai. The food was great, local produce were cheap, and the townspeople were nice and accommodating.
Before activities, I would sometimes have a leisurely stroll around the area of the adjacent temple. In the afternoon, while other delegates played volleyball with the locals, I would pass time biking around the court or just lazing around and chatting with my friends while sipping my favorite iced coffee or choco. My friends and I once explored the village riding our borrowed bikes. We went to as far as I don’t know where, but we managed to come back alive and well. Yes, we got work to do, but we also had a lot of time to spare for other fun activities.
We stayed in Nong Sarai for almost a week. Our goal was to come up with a social project that would address issues aligned to our chosen SDG. Since the solution that we must recommend should fit the need of the community, we spent our days visiting schools and interviewing teachers and students. The government schools we visited have good teaching materials. Most classrooms have television sets full of learning videos, and the kids each have their own workbooks that are excellent in content. They were good in Math and in other subjects. We observe, however, that many have difficulty communicating in English. Thus, our team created a solution to improve the students’ and the teachers’ oral and written English communication skills. The name of our project is LearnXtra, an online platform where Thai students can learn English from native speakers. Recommending a solution is not as simple as it seems. We need to be specific about so many things like the target population, cost of the project, and sources of revenue. Time passed by so fast when you’re having fun or just busy doing things. Before I knew it, it was already time to go back to Bangkok. When we returned, we further improved our proposal through the help of a mentor that the organizers assigned to us. We realized that there were so many aspects that needed working on and making a night-before-the-presentation-day preparation is totally nerve-racking.
There were many great projects and one could plainly see the work exerted by each team in creating them. We did not win the competition but the whole learning experience is totally worth all the effort. It was a journey I would not trade for the world. I went to Thailand without much expectations, but I left it with many good memories and newfound friends. APYE empowered me and gave me the understanding that, if we truly desire and put our ideas into actions, there are many things we can do to make our community a better place.