The latest dispatch from Jess Barrow, our wonderful Field Director in Bangladesh, as classes at the Asian University for Women swing into gear for the year.

"School began this week. It was exciting to watch the University emerge from its quiet, ghost like existence into a place filled with wide eyed and nervous students moving in bunches from class to class. AUW is such a new school that right now their are only two classes in place-- a first year and second year. Then there's the Access Academy, a one year prep program for students who come mostly from poor backgrounds and are not yet ready for University level work. The idea is to spend one year in the Academy before moving into the Undergraduate level. The Access Academy is where most of the WorldTeach volunteers teach.

On Friday night I went with my housemate Lihuan (who is the director of student development), the Provost, and the executive director of WorldTeach to a welcome party the second year students were throwing for the new Access Academy students. The dance was on the rooftop of the school. The girls had decorated it with homespun streamers and slightly deflated balloons. There was 7-Up and dry chocolate cake. For a moment I thought I had walked into my 8th grade dance. Everyone lined the walls in chairs, hardly speaking to each other, certainly not dancing.

But as the evening wore on, the atmosphere on the roof changed. Girls rushed up to us trying to pull us out to the dance floor, wanting to snap pictures of our faces with cameras and cellphones. They clustered together by countries-- groups of giggling girls from Vietnam, girls from Nepal with quick English and lovely smiles, girls from India dressed stylishly and leading the charge on the dance floor, and the solemn girls from Afghanistan with pale faces and high cheekbones who rarely left their seats.

I talked to many of the Afghan girls, all of whom offered quiet thoughtful replies to my questions. I was especially taken with one in particular named Najma Qurbani. She had a hard time understanding my English so I talked slowly, well trained from my year in Namibia. She spoke of homesickness, a language I am fluent in, dwelling on brothers, sisters, her parents and her country. But her tiny, bright eyes expressed what her vocabulary could not: that while being away hurts, this chance to learn, to get better, to become her own source of hope matters more.

There are so many things about this job that are incredible. But one of the most amazing parts is the diversity of the campus. Bangladesh is just as foreign to a student from China or Iran as it is to me. Hindus from India sit next to Muslims from Pakistan. Tamils from Sri Lanka eat in the same dining hall as the Sinhalese. No one is singing kumbaya and there can be tensions but for the most part the girls seem to coexist and worry more about their grades than old histories and current politics.

So many cultures and backgrounds in one place makes the world smaller and more accessible. Here we are all bundled together, forced to know and recognize each other. But if the world is shrinking, there's also a sense, almost every day, of glimpsing a new way, or image, or idea, a view just beyond what you wake up knowing in the morning. Friday, before the dance, I looked at Afghanistan and all I could see was a war. Now I can see Najma."


WorldTeach 2010 Bangladesh volunteers with executive director, Helen Claire Sievers

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