Open-mindedness and flexibility are two qualities Jennifer Divall has no shortage of. In spring 2015, when her volunteer project — which was originally supposed to take place at Dorje Dzong monastery in the upper Himalayas — suddenly fell through, the University of Ottawa Faculty of Education alumna soon switched gears and took a volunteer position teaching English as a second language with Tibet World, an NGO in McLeod Ganj, near Dharamsala, India, dedicated to community engagement, education and the preservation of Tibetan heritage.
Divall was familiar with the language and with the region, where she had conducted most of her master’s thesis research some years earlier. Still, working as a teacher was demanding. There was a learning curve going from a structured educational system such as in Canada to one she considers lacking in structure. “There was no staff continuity. None of the teachers that were there when I started were there when I ended.”
With no curriculum left behind by her predecessors, Divall’s first task was to conduct a diagnostic assessment of her students. She then developed concrete learning goals, which she hopes will make it easier for future Tibet World volunteers.
Divall’s students were particularly open to dynamic, interactive learning strategies, like those she learned at the Faculty of Education. Aged 20 to 60, they were highly motivated. “They were in class from 8 to 5, and sometimes it seemed like they didn’t want to stop. They seemed to have practically unlimited energy.” She and the students would often go out for tea after class, and sometimes cooked together.
Divall says that many tears were shed on the last day of class. The ties she formed with her students are so strong that though she has long since left, she has stayed in contact with them. “We chat a bit on Facebook,” she says, smiling. It’s just one example of the warm, intercultural environment that could be felt at McLeod Ganj. Undoubtedly, a high point of her stay was the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, for which thousands of people in the small village gathered for celebrations.
In light of her experience — and the unforeseen challenges she had to overcome — Divall stresses that you can never prepare enough for an international placement. You have to go without expectations and be as flexible as possible. “The students are so grateful for the volunteers who come to teach. It was really a wonderful experience. I would recommend it to everyone, particularly Faculty of Education students. It’s a place with many volunteer opportunities, including with Tibet World.”