The short answer to how I arrived in Laos is by plane via Seoul and Hanoi. The more significant answer, though, has a longer history with many more intermediate stops.
Moving to Laos was not an attempt to delay real life. This job, and by extension this move, marks the confluence of several personal and professional interests originating from different points in my life: education, ethnic diversity, languages, Asia, cultural preservation.
Since high school I knew I wanted to be a teacher. At that point, it didn’t matter what. I had considered becoming a Spanish language teacher but ultimately ended up deciding to study music education in college. During high school I participated in several teacher training activities: I attended the High School Summer Music Institute at Northwestern as a student in their music education division the summer between junior and senior year and my senior year I had a year-long education internship shadowing and assisting a middle school and a high school teacher.
Freshman year of college one of my professors asked if music was our passion and education our vehicle or vice versa. Without hesitation I answered that education was my passion and music was my vehicle. That’s not to say that I didn’t love music or performing, but my excitement for things always spills over into wanting to teach it to others and pass that excitement along; it is not confined to just personal participation. Even when I thought about changing my major, the question came down to, “what else would I like to teach?” During college I also got the chance to mentor younger students and help develop training materials for the mentorship program. From then, the element of training became attached to my interest in education.
Interest in ethnic diversity was critical to getting me to both China and graduate school. Despite a friend’s efforts at convincing me that China might be a good move for me, once I became aware of China’s ethnic diversity, I was sold. The desire to continue exploring ethnic diversity in China led me to graduate school and specifically to UW where the expert on this subject teaches.
As the number of languages I am familiar with grew from one to five over the past decade, language learning has become sort of an addiction. For me, the job where I either get to use a foreign language or learn a new one will almost always be preferred to the one that doesn’t. Why? Because my brain feels charged in a very particular way when it is decoding and creating meaning in another language.
Until graduate school I had toyed with the idea of becoming a professor but I saw that, in many fields, the scope of their teaching and research was quite esoteric. It seemed to me that books and articles produced in academia went widely unread by the general public and were prohibitively hard to understand. My disillusionment with the (in)accessibility of education at that level led me to consider other options where educational programs could be targeted to a wider, more general audience, especially in a more intentionally inclusive way. I wanted to create opportunities to bring knowledge to those without a specialized background. Museums and other cultural institutions seemed a good option so I explored them during graduate school through a certificate program.
With graduate school done, I began searching for a job that would bring together the elements of fulfilling work that I had been hoping and preparing for. I applied as broadly as possible for positions related to public programming at cultural institutions focused on Asia. I wanted something that would allow me to use another language, be involved in capacity building and educational programming, and that worked toward the promotion and preservation of diversity.
In late March, I received an email containing this job listing. The job and institution descriptions sounded great although I knew nothing about Laos. I applied for the job and my interest in the position grew as I got a clearer picture of how my skills and interests aligned with the goals and values of the organization. Since I discovered its existence in 2008, UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage work creating a variety of programs to reinvigorate declining cultural practices within their original communities has been my dream job. In applying for jobs, I measured desirability by how close the job would bring me to doing that kind of work. THIS IS EXACTLY THE KIND OF WORK MY MUSEUM DOES! To say I was excited would be a gross understatement!
The last question I was asked on my second interview was what I hoped to accomplish during my two-year contract. Professionally, I see myself primarily as an educator and one thing I firmly believe is true of good teachers is that they teach people how to learn; they do not just dump information on people. They always leave in their trail learners who can do and discover for themselves. So I answered, “To work myself out of a job. To train several locals well enough to be able to do exactly what I do, but better because they have an understanding of their local cultural context.” I may be primarily tasked with directing and developing programs, but I understand that within that lies the responsibility to direct and develop people.
After being offered the job, I went back and read over fellowship essays, my grad school admissions essays, and internship cover letters and in the career goals section I always stated the same things:
“…put the best of my skills to use for the best of purposes: helping to preserve, celebrate, and educate people about cultural heritage.”
– internship cover letter
“I like to think of myself as a cultural evangelist, always eager to connect people to new cultures…Whether working in intangible cultural heritage using music, dance, and storytelling to link people to their pasts and futures, creating public programs for museums, or working as a cultural planner leveraging cultural and artistic assets in urban areas to enrich community, [this opportunity] will add value to my efforts in promoting cultural diversity.”
– travel fellowship essay
“Capacity building, consulting services, and the creation of training materials are areas of critical need in which my professional training and academic background make me qualified to deliver creative, effective and localized [solutions]…Participating [in this program] will enable me to excel in my work as a cultural broker and public educator.”
– intensive language study fellowship essay
At the root of the decisions that have led up to this moment in my career and life is simply a fascination with the learning and teaching process that has grown with my experiences in the arts, in Asia, and in grad school and a belief that cultural diversity should be preserved and celebrated, recognizing the value of its material and intangible forms.