Bridging the Gap Between Service and Education

Celeste Pilegard

I flew to Laos the summer after my junior year at Fresno State. At the time I was a year away from graduation, and deeply steeped in directionless idealism—I knew I wanted to do something positive with my life, but I had no idea what that was. I was like James Dean with less anger and more optimism: an altruist without a cause.

I hoped that a summer spent volunteering on the other side of the world would help, so I scraped together some money, supplies, and a tenuous connection in Vientiane, Laos, and left for a few months abroad. Once there, I split my time between disorganized but well-meaning NGO and a wonderful little school at the end of a quiet alleyway called the Sunshine School. The time I spent in Laos was inspiring, disorienting, and enlightening in ways I never expected. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned, in a summer when I was trying to get away from being a student for awhile, was something my time at Fresno State had already taught me: the magnitude in which education and service are interlinked.

One of the classes I taught at the Sunshine School was a special reading group with 4th grade boys who were struggling with English. For six weeks, I spent an hour each day with these boys trying to help them grasp reading English with Roman script. Within a week I realized what their reading education was missing: phonics. The boys learned whole words but not the sounds that letters usually make, making learning new words difficult. I recalled a paper from a class in developmental psychology that showed that children who learn to read using phonics do better than those using line “look-say”which my students had been trained in. I refocused our lessons and by the time the summer sessions was over they were successfully sounding out novel words. I was a psychology major and had learned a lot of interesting facts about the human mind, but this was something new: this was psychological research in action—and it was working.

As exciting as this new insight was, I was also struck by another reality: I had no idea what I was doing. After all, I wasn’t an English teacher—I was a 21-year-old psychology major who was fluent in English only by coincidence of my birthplace. The 4th grade reading group was only one of several classes I was responsible for; I also held a class with the advanced English teachers at the school. My students in that class were Laotian women with Bachelor’s degrees in English. When I identified a mistake they made with a nuance of the English languages (“You should have used ‘which’ instead of ‘what’.”) I could only offer guesses and authority as explanations (“…Because it sounds better to me?”). When I bough the plane ticket to Laos, I was filled with excitement at being a young person with good intentions in a poor country. After connecting with the Sunshine School and spending a few weeks teaching, however, I continuously wished that I had more education.

The experience of sincerely wanting to help, but lacking the training to do so, gave me new goals for my future. I thought about what I could learn that would give me the tools I needed to affect the world in a positive way. The following fall I applied to graduate school. I’m now a 4th year Ph.D. student studying Cognitive Psychology. My research is focused on how people learn and how, as a consequence, they should be taught. I hope that the work I do will help give future teachers the tools to problem-solve in the classroom and help their students learn.

I often reflect on the service experience that I had in Laos, and it helps me stay inspired and energetic in my graduate studies. When I expected to be a trip about service turned out to teach me even more about education. I think my experience at Fresno State helped me realize that. Fresno State is an institution where service and academics are always complementary and sometimes even indistinguishable. I took a trip halfway around the world to realize a lesson that was available to me right at home. Service can sometimes be a destination, but it’s always a journey. What better way to explore yourself, your interests, your education, and the world around you than in the service of others?