Three-time volunteer Melinda Staveley says she chooses Global Volunteers service for her travel abroad for the deeper human connection and cultural learning. In Vietnam, Melinda taught conversational English to visually impaired young massage therapists. The non-profit spa where they train and work serves mainly international clients where English language skills are essential. Read on for Melinda’s “deeper dive” as a volunteer in Vietnam.
What inspired you to serve? Why did you decide to volunteer in Vietnam?
I retired from hospital administration five years ago, and I decided that I wanted to travel and see parts of the world I have not been to before. So I researched online for a program that I thought would be meet my own needs as well as give me the opportunity to get to know people in a more meaningful way by doing something with them in their country. So my first trip was to Cuba, then to Ipalamwa, Tanzania twice, and now in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Vietnam has been of an interest to me for many years of my life. I have several friends in California who are Vietnamese. Serving in Vietnam became a possibility for me this year and I’m delighted to be here. It’s a great opportunity.
How did you choose your multiple Global Volunteers programs?
After my first experience with Global Volunteers in Cuba, which was excellent, I realized that the most meaningful travel for me is an intense experience, a deeper dive. I wanted the opportunity to interact with people on a meaningful level, and Global Volunteers offers that. I started traveling when I was 15 with a program called American Field Service Exchange Program, and I lived in Norway for a year. So traveling for me ever since that experience is not just going in and out and see all the tourist sights. It’s meeting people and interacting with people in a give-and-take way.
What’s an average day for a volunteer in Hanoi?
We have breakfast at 7:00 or 7:30, and those who teach at Omamori Spa arrive by 8:30 in the morning. We have teaching sessions with the students throughout the morning, with a couple of stretch breaks until noon. Then we have lunch, which is delicious. The food is absolutely delicious, by the way. After lunch, we are back at the spa for more teaching sessions until 3:30 p.m. We work with students in a group or one on one. At 3:30 p.m. we take a taxi back to the hotel and we have free time for the rest of the afternoon to rest or explore the city or do as we like. Then in evening, at dinner we meet with our Team Leader and teammates to discuss the day.
Can you tell us a bit more about teaching conversational English to the students at Omamori Spa?
I have noticed a wide difference in the amount of English that one person knows from another. The levels vary greatly. Many of these folks speak really developed English, and there are others who do not speak much English at all. Part of that is because they are shy and not able to practice a lot and part of it is because they didn’t have a lot of opportunity to learn English. So we have figured out how to work with people of different levels. Helping them help each other has worked really well. Something that we are trying out and enjoying is songs and opportunities that build in a lot of humor. It’s relaxing for everybody and then people are more willing to practice their English skills. The other thing we have talked a lot about is pronouncing very clearly and it feels exaggerated a bit, but it works much better because people can hear the sounds more clearly.
When people are visually impaired, one needs to use voice and intonation more clearly than when you are able to use facial expressions or hand gestures. So this has been a learning experience for me.
Why are volunteers needed in Vietnam?
To be honest, I expected that people would speak more and better English than I’m actually finding. So I’m finding that teaching English is quite useful. I wasn’t sure that it would be necessary. Particularly expanding vocabulary beyond simple words and working on pronunciation. Some of the people we are working with are using their phones to communicate with their clients, so we are working a lot on pronunciation, enunciation, and clarity. I’m finding it quite useful for them.
How would you describe the students you worked with?
They are very bright, attentive, able to listen, and have quite a developed ear for learning the language. We have learned, however, that there are two sounds that are particularly difficult for Vietnamese, these are the “l” sound and the “th,” so we are working quite a bit with these two sounds.
Do you think you are enhancing your students’ lives?
I believe I am because I’m experiencing so much, and I feel that there is so much that has been given to me here. I hope that just by interacting and practicing English, that this is useful to the people that we are with here.
How do you describe this experience to your friends and family?
I tell my family how warm and welcoming the people are. There has been lots of laughter and lots of smiles. I tell them about the humidity and the traffic. It is amazing to me how fast the scooters go and the cars can go and not hit anybody. I tell them about the food – delicious and healthy – and about just being welcomed. And I tell them about my team. We are very compatible, and have enjoyed our time together.
How is a Global Volunteers service program different from a typical vacation?
This is not a vacation. I don’t think of it as a vacation. I think of it as an opportunity to learn about another country, other people, other systems, and about myself as I’m learning and meeting new people. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of intention, and willingness to be open to differences. It’s not about going and lying on a beach somewhere.
Would you like to share any particular moments that have touched you in a special way?
The grace and gentleness of all the people is remarkable compared to what one experiences in the most part when meeting new people in the U.S. There is a young woman that is really confident and expressive with her English skills, and she is very warm and welcoming. She was the first person I interacted with when I came here. I realized that I can use my sense of humor. I like to make jokes and have fun and I realized that was going to do just great here.
What would you like to share with people who are considering volunteering in Vietnam?
I encourage them to do it. The program is well-developed, and is developing even more. There is opportunity to interact with different people from different backgrounds. There is opportunity to explore on one’s own, which I like a lot when I feel comfortable where I am. I would encourage them to know that places are air-conditioned so even with the heat and humidity outside, you are comfortable inside. Our hotel is lovely and meets all of our needs. The food is delicious.
I feel safe here. I’ve been told by many people that it’s safe for me to move around on my own. I think my gray hair helps a lot. I think I get a little more respect as an older person. I like that!
I would strongly encourage people to consider the service program in Vietnam as it is a wonderful program where you can feel like you truly have an impact on the students.