This week ENGAGE sits down with Suzanne Haggerty, Education and Curriculum Coordinator for Metro TeenAIDS and alumna of CIEE Thailand’s Fall 2008 Globalization and Development program. A graduate of George Washington University, Suzanne has also worked as an International Teaching Team member with Khon Kaen Education Initiative (KKEI). Today, Suzanne shares her insights about holistic education and connecting her work and lessons learned in Thailand with her current work in the D.C. area.
My organization is called Metro TeenAIDS and we are a non-profit with a mission to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Washington DC by focusing on empowering youth. I am part of our schools team which is a team of people who go into DC public and charter schools to teach HIV prevention and general sexual reproductive education. In addition to that, I develop and train the team on topics from facilitation to STI rates, contraceptive methods, and confidentiality. I also review and rewrite different pieces of our school curricula to ensure it reflects the youth we serve, and the current statistics in DC.
How did your study abroad experience influence your path into this type of work?
After studying abroad I knew I wanted to get back to Thailand as soon as I could. I managed to stay in touch with the right people, and applied for a position with Khon Kaen Education Initiative (KKEI) where I worked for a year with the fantastic Thai educators. It also allowed me to connect with past KKEI members in the US. Those relationships and a lot of hard work helped us put on the Teacher Tour to the US which happened in October of this year and was a huge success. When I got back from KKEI, I knew I wanted to continue doing hands on, service work. I originally got involved in an Americorp program and interviewed with Metro TeenAIDS and it seemed like a perfect fit! I could keep the aspects I picked up from KKEI with teaching and facilitation, but I would have the additional benefit of focusing on a topic that I care a lot about and that I had studied during my time with CIEE. My CIEE human rights report was all about HIV/AIDS, so it seemed like a great way to connect the dots of my past to my present and future.
Why is this work important to you and what impact has it had on you personally or professionally?
This work is important to me because whether we like it or not, youth are the future. I want to ensure that they are empowered with support and knowledge to pursue their dreams. I was really fortunate to have a lot of support growing up and was surrounded by people who pushed me to challenge myself and I want others to have that same support. With all the distractions in this world, it’s easy to lose sight of what you want–especially if you’re growing up in DC. This work is not just about HIV prevention. It is about a holistic education for young people. For young people to understand their bodies, their rights, and their choices.
What do you mean by a “holistic education”? How is that different from traditional education and why is it needed?
Something that I learned about in Thailand was the notion of holistic education. Instead of just teaching English because it’s required, teach English as a subject that is integrated with their other topics and their daily life. Using English as more than something you complete worksheets and assignments for, but as a tool to talk about problems, social issues, etc. Khon Kaen is surprisingly similar to DC in the issues they both face: poverty, drugs, alcohol abuse, education disparities, race issues, and issues of general livelihood of a family. As a result, in DC I use discussions on HIV, STIs, teen pregnancy, and drug use as a gateway to talk about the future. By having the youth see a broader picture and understand where they want to go in five or ten years, they really understand the value of something small like protection during sexual activities and how missing that step can really mess with your plans for the future. It’s not just about not getting HIV, it’s about reaching your dreams and living to see them come true. My goal is to always be a holistic educator and try to push myself and others to develop on a broad scale.
What advice do you have for newly returning study abroad students, particularly from one of the CIEE Thailand programs, who want to continue working for social justice in their home communities?
Listen. Listen openly, and listen to many people. It is crucial to understand the problems of a community instead of deciding you know them. If you go into a group or a community with the notion that you know exactly what they need and you will solve all their problems, no change will occur. If you want to work in a community, make sure it’s the one you live in. Being the outsider is a difficult way to create sustainable change. Other than that, persistence and breaks for your mental sanity! Social justice is wonderful and demanding and stressful. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not taking care of your community.