Education that Empowers: A gap year student’s takeaways

Each Thinking Beyond Borders program includes several curricular units on issues relating to Education, Environment or Public Health.  Our students engage with these topic through experiential learning and partnering with members of their host community, as well as participating in a group seminar space facilitated by Program Leaders to help process and contextualize their time abroad.

TBB Student Isabella Berkeley with her host siblings in Guatemala

TBB Student Isabella Berkeley with her host siblings in Guatemala

But what do TBB students get out of these units?  And how do their gap experiences with Thinking Beyond Borders impact their thinking?  For a closer look, we are pleased to share several excerpts written by our Global Gap Year student, Isabella Berkeley, who earned college credit through Western Colorado University for her Education unit in Thailand with Thinking Beyond Borders.

How has this unit made you think differently about your experiences thus far in life as a learner? Do you consider yourself to be an oppressed or liberated learner? Why? What are some things you can do moving forward to take responsibility for your own learning?

If we stopped questioning, nothing would change. Education, and the pedagogy it implements and supports, sets the standard for reality outside the classroom. Going forward, I know I won’t always be able to depend on my leaders to acknowledge the voices their institutions overlook, but I feel confident in my ability to recognize the gaps or biases. As a rising college freshman, I recognize I’m in a unique position as a consumer: if demands drive supply, I don’t see a reason not to demand equity in my future educational spaces, whether it be in my curriculums, classrooms or on campus.

Does education inherently have a bias? Are topics we learn about in formal education such as math or history fundamentally subjective? Why or why not?

Education inherently adopts the biases of those that create the institutions and resources used. Education gives governments–and the corporate conglomerates they’re affiliated with–the power to control the story. Through education, those in power can create cultural narratives and erase competing identities, stories, and cultures from that of the nation’s. Though we’re taught to believe history, math, and other subjects are objective, everything is filtered to tell a single story: that of the victors. Be it history from the perspective of the colonizers, or scientific facts vetted by our country’s CEOs, everything we’re taught works to reinforce approved archetypes. Which begs the question, if educational spaces inherently adopt the biases of their creators, does an equitable education truly exist?

How does the experience of students in the educational system you are observing in [Thailand] compare to your own educational system? How does this experience of teachers vary between the two?

TBB students learn alongside Thai students in a local classroom

TBB students learn alongside Thai students in a local classroom

The question of whether students and teachers are equal is complex. Though neither educational system (American nor Thai) had an explicit answer, I experienced mentors and learning spaces that encouraged me to be an individual and approach my teachers as peers. In Thai classrooms, I was met with identical rows of desks, every one filled with students that believed I had more power. No one asked questions and–though I wasn’t qualified to be there–my every word was accepted as the truth.

My first day teaching in Thai schools, the head English teacher, Ajaan Dream, warned us against asking the students to stand up or participate in casual games. When I’d asked why, she’d told me the students weren’t used to breaking hierarchical standards; being asked to play games or interact with teachers as equals would be seen as offensive, both to them, the school, and ourselves as authoritarians.

In the end, we taught English the way we knew how: with interactive games and activities that forced our students to get out of their chairs. And, despite Ajaan Dream’s warnings, our students had loved it. However, walking home everyday, I would wonder whether we were doing the right thing in going against their hierarchical values as a school and, on a larger scale, their culture. Was I teaching my students skills and expectations in power dynamics that would hinder their abilities to succeed in the Thai context? At the end of the day, I don’t know. I don’t know whether students and teachers should be equal, or what culture has fostered the best educational environment– and who am I to say either or? What I do know, however, is that I received no training to be a teacher, so, even now, I don’t regret telling my students not to look at me like one.


For further information on our gap year curriculums, please visit our Behind the Scenes blog posts on our Education, Environment, Public Health and Identity Development curriculums.  To learn more about college credit options on your gap year, visit our college credit page.