Capacity Building: The World is our Classroom


In 2014, Mary MacKillop College embarked on a four week expedition with World Challenge and Reynella East College to Vietnam and Cambodia. Our objective was to build capacity, the capacity of our own students through learning from different cultures and taking responsibility for their expedition.

The students raised their own money for the trip and voted on their preferred itinerary in the 18 month build up to our departure and then, in late November, we hit the ground running.

We experienced the relentless heat and commotion of Ho Chi Minh, where the park seemed more alive at night than during the day, with pumping aerobics classes and skateboarders weaving in and out of pedestrians. One morning after our trek, we rose to a crisp clear day and sat quietly by a lake waiting for our boat to arrive. We trekked through the foliage of a jungle near Da Lat and watched the sun rise over the sea in Nah Trang. We bartered in the bustling city markets of Hoi An and were awoken by roosters crowing right under our house in the trees during our homestay in a Vietnamese village. We waded waist deep through a river and dried our clothes on lines suctioned onto the window of our bus. We experienced the somber and confronting history of Cambodia during our tours of the S21 Prison and the Killing Fields in Phnom Pen and marveled at the beauty of the sunrise over the awe inspiring temples of Ankor Wat. From the Vietnam War History Museum to the English school in Kep where, under the beating sun, we dug a trench for water pipes and helped to build a playground. From watching a traditional Vietnamese gong show, to reveling in a Cambodian dance party. From eating (and regurgitating) spiders, to cruising down the Mekong; all of this was done through the leadership and planning of the students. 

Once we were in country, our budget, food, transport and accommodation were all organised by the students. Any important decisions were made by the students after discussing and negotiating as a group, without teacher input. While our experiences were varied and exciting, they could also be confronting and arduous and it was in these moments that deep learning took place. 

The students reached and surpassed their breaking points on a number of occasions. One student was up until 1am trying to book accommodation within our budget for the next night. Another broke down over not being able to source lunch for our group of ravenous teenagers. However, I noticed that over the course of our four weeks, the students needed me less and less.

On the flight back to Australia, I was struck down with food poisoning and a group of very confident and capable students took me to the medical clinic on our stopover in Kuala Lumpor, checked me in to the next flight, carried my luggage through the airport, disposed of my sick bags and bought water and lollies to help with my dehydration. One student even stood on the plane for hours so that I could lie down to rest. 

I believe the students who disembarked in Adelaide were more culturally aware, more aware of their own privilege and more confident in their ability to make decisions and follow them through, especially when navigating in the unknown. They were much more able to plan and think ahead and had a deeper understanding of the value and management of money. They also developed a greater insight into the importance of compromise and respectful discussion. One student told me that having control of the day to day planning and running of the expedition made it her most enjoyable and rewarding experience to date.

Now, as we move towards the second half of 2016, we have another nine girls who are ready to take on this adventure and face a challenging three weeks in Cambodia, this time with the organisation Antipodeans Abroad. I can’t wait. I truly believe that the higher our expectations of students and the more we hold ourselves back from rescuing them from challenge, the more room we give them to grow.

Claire MacLennan 

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