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Summer Laos course presents rare opportunity


Update: This course is not available in the summer of 2016 due to low enrollment. It will be offered in the summer of 2017.

This summer, instead of spending a traditional four weeks of TAS Summer Academy sitting in an air-conditioned classroom and cramming in a year’s worth of curriculum, students have the option to take the unique opportunity in the “Laos Expository Writing and Service Learning” course.
The new course is similar to the last year’s new course for National Palace Museum docent training, in that the courses take place both on and off campus. However, this course not only takes students off campus but out of the country to Laos in Southeast Asia.
For the first time, the Summer Academy is combining an academic class with service learning. The course qualifies as an elective English class (not a core English class) and explores expository writing in a wide variety of forms, in partnership with the ECO Bungalow Project. Students will spend a school week on-campus to learn expository writing skills and to study the history and culture of Laos before traveling to the country for 9 days.The writing section is both on-campus and in-country: students are introduced to journalistic note-taking that is used during the trip. Every evening students will write and discuss their writings, so the writing course continues while they are there.
The trip is sponsored by Dr. Smith and Ms. Lin, both of the English department. Dr. Smith said that he likes the course because, “it’s a class where if you come in because you write for the newspaper, you probably want something different than if you come in because you are really interested in doing the best you can in service, versus if you’re a blogger and you want to write about ‘Life in Laos’ or something to that effect.” So while the program is an English course, it does not involve typical structured writing and is very flexible in terms of content.
However, the main takeaway from the course obviously is not the academic component. “I think students will walk away with a pretty solid addition to their toolkit for doing well in writing-based courses,” said Smith, “but the focus will be on the amazing experience at the same time.”
In selecting organizations for service trips, the ECO Bungalow Project was a standout to Dr. Smith in its ability to provide a sustained commitment to the area and to a collaborative relationship with the service partners rather than a simple gifting of aid ordeal. He said, “I’m a natural skeptic when it comes to service work, so I like to look for longevity. The group leaders [of the project] having such a lifelong connection to Laos and commitment there has to do with why their project is such a good model.”
Dr. Smith and Ms. Lin also are advisors of the Cambodia Service Initiative club, but Dr. Smith points out a difference between the two trips in that students will be able to experience more depth in the Laos summer course. The program in Laos arranges for students to do homestays in the villages. He said, “In the CSI trip [we] only have four days. There is some meaningful contact with locals while we’re at the buildsite [for one day], but one day is one day. We can’t cross that bridge within one day.” In the Laos trip which is around a week longer, however, Dr. Smith said, “I think something much deeper will come in terms of people’s understanding of what it’s like to live with so much less. I think that’s an understanding that every student would benefit from, but it’s a really difficult thing to know. It’s very hard to get the chance to have an authentic relationship with folks living such a different life.”
Working alongside and staying with the locals in Laos is what “sealed the deal” for Dr. Smith to invest in the program. “I think [relationships] can grow from an extended amount of quality time spent with people that you work with. It becomes harder to look at them as pitiable if you spend time with them and have a peer-level conversation.”
After coming back from Laos, students will spend a final school week writing a final formal piece of writing that reflects and evaluates the experience. Don’t let this scare you, though. The piece will depend on each student’s interests. Afterall, like Dr. Smith said, “Students will have a lot of liberty about what they write in the end.”
He urges for students to recognize the rare opportunity this program represents. He said, “All I can say is that for me, I’ve been involved in service learning projects for about 15 years. There are lots of great things out there, but I think it’s kind of rare to run across an opportunity, even including what’s available in college, that is this substantial and is as well-thought out as this one. It’s a lot to expect in the summer, but I hope that students will find the time to give it a shot.”

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