Zanzibar, Tanzania, is not necessarily a popular place for young college students to spend their summers. Yet, as Liselot Koenen – a graduate of St. Charles North High School – climbed onto a plane to return to America from Tanzania, she said she was already planning when she could return or make another trip to a developing country.
Koenen spent six weeks of her summer teaching chemistry through America’s Unofficial Ambassadors, an organization that strives to “build mutual understanding between America and the Muslim world,” according to its website.
Stefan Cornibert, program coordinator for America’s Unofficial Ambassadors, said the organization looks for good communicators and people who are serious about foreign service.
Cornibert said the goals of the program are two fold. He said AUA wants its volunteers to have a “substantive impact” with the Muslim communities and be good diplomats by sharing American culture and sharing what they learned while abroad with friends and family after they return.
Before she left for the trip, Koenen took a number of Web seminars through AUA about culture, religion and safety. She had never taught more than tennis lessons prior to that, and Koenen said she only knew “hello” and “goodbye” in Swahili.
“I honestly didn’t know what to expect,” Koenen said.
Koenen is studying international health at Georgetown University and said she came across the opportunity to teach abroad through her school’s career center. She said she was expecting to teach English but was asked to teach chemistry for a teacher on maternity leave.
At times, Koenen said she questioned the practicality of teaching the intricacies of chemical bonds and atoms to students of an impoverished country that, she said, had little infrastructure and no obvious waste disposal program.
The Georgetown student said she found fulfillment despite her pupils not having the books or the necessary lab equipment, because critical thinking and studying skills slowly replaced blind memorizing of all the material.
Koenen said her biggest regret was not being able to stay longer because, she said, her students were just starting to feel more comfortable. They began to ask more questions and participate more as time went on, she said.
Koenen said when students inquired about a particular problem or engaged more directly in class it brought her the “most joy out of teaching.”
Safety is often a concern for Westerners visiting underdeveloped countries; however, not only did Koenen say she always felt safe, but she also was extremely well respected. Students would often carry her books for her on the way home after school, she said.
Aside from her teaching duties, Koenen and the other volunteers had the weekends to themselves to explore the country and immerse themselves in the country’s cuisine and countryside.
Koenen said she fielded a number of questions about what American life and American wealth is like. She also said students would ask her about how to get to America.
While she said they were difficult questions for a 21-year-old to adequately answer, she said she often told her students that they must focus and learn from their surroundings and help each other to instill change.
Koenen emphasized the importance of being culturally sensitive in developing countries. She said people must realize outsiders cannot just change communities, but rather they need to understand how to help within cultural boundaries and create situations for people to help themselves.
She spoke about the drive she has to help others, and while she could not identify its source, she said when she sees people struggle, she is inspired to help.
“My own goal in life … is to help people help themselves,” Koenen said. “I love seeing people empowered.”
Koenen plans to finish her degree and complete her senior thesis in Africa.