Abroad in Oz: How the Minerva Fellows know they’re Nott at Union anymore

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By Elizabeth Osborn

Elizabeth Osborn ‘10 studied neuroscience at Union and is now a Minerva Fellow in Siem Reap, Cambodia. She works at a school with an NGO called The Global Child (TGC) teaching English, math, science, piano, art, and soccer. The school pays children $1 a day to continue their education.

I’m standing in a lake of cold, dirty brown water. Cringing, I gingerly move my feet, kicking up leaves, which I envision to be snakes, brushing against me in this murky abyss.  I was begged in by 25 pleading children, now launching themselves at me into water over their heads, hoping I’ll catch them, as few can swim.  During the chaos, one of my students clings on, her arms wrapped around my neck and legs entwined around my waist.  Minutes elapse until I glance down, met with the sight of a sleeping child, her head on my shoulder, sucking her thumb in peace.  Shivering with blue lips, she adamantly braves the cold water, clinging to every last drop of the moment.

Through my hospice experiences, the transformative effects of physical touch have been ingrained into my mind. As a dying person lies in front of you, they want a physical hand to hold. They want comfort in a form more substantial than a medical professional standing there, asking them what hurts.

Cambodia has dealt me an entirely different hand, yet this concept comes echoing back.  I’m now surrounded by 25 vivacious children. They have been given immeasurable opportunities by TGC, receiving an education, food, and healthcare. These items can be checked off a list. Their lives have been improved.  But what about the vital aspects of emotional development that should be fostered at home amongst a loving family?

Many of the kids here aren’t held when they are hurt or sick, tucked in at night, or told that they are loved daily. The younger kids come from broken homes and families with alcoholic fathers, mothers with drug addictions, or with no parents at all.  They avoid their homes, arriving early to school and leaving late, the encroaching darkness on their bike ride being their only motivation to go. The older kids live in a dorm, seeing their families, if they have any to see, three times a year.

All day, children are wrapping their arms around me, taking any opportunity to grab my hand or curl up against me.

Even the older kids display similar behavior. It’s caught me off guard. In schools at home, this wouldn’t be the norm. But TGC serves as much more than a school to these kids, who lack far more in their lives than an education. And so, it’s unexpectedly become part of my job description.

In three months I’ll be home, hands tied, desperately hoping that I’ve done everything I could to improve their lives academically and emotionally. So until I say goodbye, I’ll continue to hold on tight when they throw their arms around me.  And when they are asleep holding my hand, I won’t pull away until they do. Because that’s what these children need. Not someone standing there, asking them what hurts.

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