“Everyone says they would really like to do what we’ve done one day – to take some time to go and volunteer aboard – but, to be honest, not many of them will ever do it because it’s quite a challenge. However, the rewards are incredible so I really do believe more people should sit down and ask themselves: ‘What’s stopping us?’ You’ll regret not doing it when you had the opportunity.”

Christine Schmidli is reflecting on her experiences as the curriculum and training advisor for five rural training centres (RTCs) run by the Anglican Church of Melanesia in Vanuatu. The two-year placement, from 2013 to 2015, allowed her and husband Kurt to live a long-held dream.

“We had both been working in education for a long time; we felt we had lots of experience that would be useful. We wanted a change and a bit of an adventure,” she says.

Christine started her career as a primary school teacher before moving into early childhood education and, later, working with at-risk youth. She became a tutor at the Eastern Institute of Technology and eventually moved to Switzerland where she got involved with ESOL. Returning to New Zealand, she was principal at the New Horizon College of English while Kurt retrained to become a marketing and business advisor.

The couple, from Napier, often talked about doing some sort of volunteer work abroad and, having had long and successful careers, decided in 2012 that the time was right to put plans into action. They took to the internet to find out more about volunteer work and researched Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA), New Zealand’s largest volunteer agency working in international development.

Founded by Sir Edmund Hillary, VSA’s bread and butter was teaching placements in the 1960s and ’70s. Kiwi school leavers taught classes from Samoa to Sarawak. These days, VSA sends skilled New Zealanders throughout the Asia-Pacific region to share their knowledge and experience in a raft of different industries and sectors.

Calling for advisors and administrators

In the education sector, VSA Pacific needs teacher trainers, curriculum advisors and education administrators, rather than teachers. The youth population in the Pacific is booming and, in most countries, more than half of the population is under the age of 15, so education is under pressure. Schools, communities and governments need support to ensure a well-run school system with a well-trained workforce.

VSA frequently has short- and long-term volunteer opportunities for qualified, experienced education managers, advisors and trainers with a teaching or education qualification and relevant experience. All assignments are locally identified and delivered, as well as being relevant and sustainable after volunteers return to New Zealand. Volunteers come from a diverse range of backgrounds and, with work experience in education as well as business and marketing, Christine and Kurt were ideal candidates.

“You learn a lot about yourself and what you’re capable of, and you become more ingenious about finding practical solutions and methods to deal with challenges.”

Christine says once VSA identified a suitable assignment, the application process was straightforward and involved interviews, some psychometric testing, and induction workshops, which included a lot of information about what volunteering entails.

“We were warned it would be a challenge and it was! Perhaps the biggest thing of all was the heat and humidity – that’s something you really have to know that you can cope with – and the very basic living standards and conditions were tough at times too.

“The accommodation in Luganville, Santo, was perfectly adequate but Kurt and I often travelled to the outer islands where there was no hot water, no flush toilets and just a thin mattress on the ground to sleep on under a mosquito net; but if you can go tramping and camping, you can cope with it.”

Working with local counterpart Augustine Rihai, Christine’s first task was to help put in place a quality management system for five RTCs, which offer vocational training in subjects like carpentry, hospitality and tourism to rural communities, helping local people improve their livelihoods. That allowed the RTCs to apply to the Vanuatu Qualification Authority for registration.

Once these were developed, she then worked on the development of a language, literacy and numeracy programme across each of the RTCs. Christine quickly realised there needed to be trained local people to deliver the syllabus. That meant becoming involved in hiring suitable candidates and providing them with training to teach the programme. One was a 16-year-old girl who had some high school education and computer experience; another was a priest; a third was an early childhood teacher and the remaining two had primary school teaching experience.

“There seems to be a number of education-related vacancies and anyone from New Zealand with teacher training experience or a teaching background can offer a lot in places like Vanuatu,” she says. “It made me realise just how good our system is and how lucky our children are to be educated in purpose-built schools with resources like computers and books.

“The children in Vanuatu were thirsty for knowledge and would take advantage of whatever opportunities came their way and sometimes all they had was a pen and piece of paper but they always made the most of it.”

New skills and great satisfaction

Christine says she learned new skills too. Vanuatu is on a volcanic archipelago of 86 islands and has the highest density of languages per capita in the world, with around 110 indigenous languages spoken by an average of only 2,000 people. An English-based creole language, called Bislama, has developed to become a national language and joins English and French as one of the three official languages of the island nation.

Christine learned Bislama and began to produce simple readers in the language so that whole families could practise their reading and writing. She says the local church bus driver enjoyed her stories so he became her unofficial editor.

“You also have the opportunity to immerse yourself in another culture, which I think only happens when you live in, rather than travel to, a place. You learn a lot about yourself and what you’re capable of, and you become more ingenious about finding practical solutions and methods to deal with challenges.”

She says seeing local people able to use education to improve their lives was one of the greatest pleasures. It was particularly pleasing for her to see women and girls becoming more empowered – starting their own cottage industries and postponing having children – and reducing family violence.

“It’s well known that if you educate girls, it benefits the entire community because women can then run businesses, which contribute to local economy, and look after their children better,” she says. “Girls in Vanuatu often start families very young and many suffer injuries or die because their bodies can’t cope with childbirth.”

Just how much Christine and Kurt enjoyed their time in Vanuatu can be gauged by the fact that they’re now applying for a two-year placement in Papua New Guinea.

“Our son, who’s in his thirties, thinks we’re mad, but why wouldn’t we?”

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