AN Australian College within the University of Sydney has established a program which not only aids various non-government and charity organisations within Vietnam and Cambodia, but also extends the professional skills of the students and enriches the academic environment of the college. Each year seven students from Wesley College are chosen to study and travel in Vietnam and Cambodia as part of the Overseas Study Experience Program.
The program, now in its 18th year of operation, consists of two month-long study sessions, as well as culture and language lessons, all of which are partly subsidised by the college.
The first half of the trip is spent visiting and learning about the organisations and families sponsored by the college.
One such organisation is Project Indochina. Established in 2005 as a private philanthropic venture by Australian Geoff Shaw, its mission is to provide education, housing, clean water, sanitation, health care and income-generation opportunities to poor and disadvantaged children, their families and communities in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
The college also donates US$1000 annually to the Street Children Assistance and Development Program in Cambodia, which assists orphans, many of whom have been saved from trafficking and have contracted aids.
During this part of the trip the students are also given the opportunity to teach English at the University of Hanoi.
Having absorbed all this, the students then undertake a work placement or internship within the field of their chosen career path, organised previous to departure.
This year, placements undertaken by students include work in the community services office at the United Nations International School making a promotional video and updating its website, as well as at the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi.
Students also volunteered at the Hanoi University of Agriculture, working within the faculty of accounting and business with duties ranging from teaching classes to researching data-retrieval methods used to analyse farming efficiency in remote parts of Vietnam.
Another student worked with Project Indochina, researching and reporting on the environmental degradation caused by, and viable alternatives to, slash-and-burn agriculture and other nomadic agricultural practices carried out by ethnic minorities in central Vietnam.
Placements in past years have also been conducted at the likes of the Office of Genetic and Counseling Disabled Children in Hue, The Future School for handicapped children in Cantho, the BBC bureau in Hanoi and The Phnom Penh Post.
What this creates is something greater than mere charity. In the long term, the program contributes to the wider college community’s knowledge and appreciation of the cultural and commercial dynamics of modern Asia.
The immersive nature of the program also serves to raise awareness of Cambodian and Vietnamese poverty in Australia, as admission to the program stipulates that the students apply their experience to foster further development of the program upon their return.
This is helped by the ongoing scholarship offered by the college to a Vietnamese student which pays for his board at Wesley while he or she is studying at Sydney University.
The spreading of awareness is conducted primarily through family ties and social circles. This method, while simplistic, will always evoke a stronger reaction than mass media efforts, simply because it brings the issue much closer to home, a necessary shock to an audience which has become desensitised to images of poverty.
In other words, we are more inclined to be moved by our friends and family than a TV set and in a college of 250, with a yearly intake and exodus of about 80 people, the program achieves much more than its size would suggest.
Before the students leave Australia they are required to raise a certain quota to fund part of their trip, any surplus of which is to be donated.
They also have the power to dictate where some portions of funding are invested, adding further responsibility to their workings. This ensures the money donated through The Wesley College Foundation is used effectively, going to appropriate causes and communities which are frequently re-evaluated in person, by the students.
The success of this system is seen in Wesley’s donations to SCAADP, which only began in 2010 when it was proposed by that year’s group. In this way, the college is using the NGOs it sponsors to educate its students and create an infrastructure for continuity within its community which multiplies the benefits of its donations.There are only a few programs of this kind being conducted in Australia, but its popularity is slowly increasing as people begin to see the potential of the program to yield bilateral benefits. The Overseas Study Program is authorised by the Wesley College Council and established in 1993 under the aegis of the Wesley College Foundation.