Kurt Kuehne

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November 12, 2014

 Where were you – and what did you do – during your PiA experience?

I worked for the Singapore Ministry of Education from 2008 to 2010. I was one of the first seven to participate in new initiative (and new PiA post) called the International Teaching Associate program, which sought to inject innovation and creativity to schools by introducing foreign teachers.

My first school was a ‘neighbourhood’ secondary school in Jurong, a working-class district in Singapore’s industrial west. One week after my arrival, I was informed that I would be teaching “The History of Singapore,” about which I knew approximately…nothing. However, my boss dubiously assured me that Singapore history and American history were “actually quite similar.” My responsibilities included 240 students, six classes, four subjects, three age groups, and all three ability levels.

Later, I moved to Raffles Junior College to teach a blended humanities-and-writing course. I was there for the majority of my PiA time and a bit beyond. I’m grateful to PiA and the Ministry for the unparalleled experience across so many levels of the local education system. I absolutely loved teaching at both schools. 

What was one of the craziest or most interesting experiences you had while on PiA? 

The list is endless, so I’m going to cheat a little and refer to two:

The craziest experience happened on Mabul island, a 0.2 km2 sandbar off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. I was showering in the dive shop dormitory when I heard people outside screaming and running in terror. I can’t describe the chilling sensation that courses through you in a moment like that. My first reaction was that Abu Sayyaf militants were taking hostages again (they snatched 21 people from the same dive shop in 2000 raid), so I barricaded myself in the bathroom. Bad idea! I got out just moments before the electrical fire tore through the room. The wood and thatch building was quickly devoured and reduced to ash, but thankfully no one was hurt.

The most interesting experience was inheriting my own homeroom class, which is akin to becoming, in your early 20’s, a full-time parent to two dozen 17-year-old kids for two years. You’re formally responsible for each student’s academic, social, and emotional well-being. The kids lead complex lives, and you really do have all the joys and stresses of a guardian. You develop close bonds with the students and become integrated into the local community in a very special way.

It was also a lot of fun. I never knew what to expect when I walked into the classroom. I might find my class drawing a hilarious Freudian diagram of adolescent dating on the whiteboard, having a dance party, or attempting to smuggle in a terrified gerbil. You get to know all the students’ amusing quirks, you share inside jokes, and you become quite vested in their daily success. I’m very proud of them. 

What are you up to now? 

I’m a first-year graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. Yes, apparently Wisconsin is the place to be for researching Southeast Asia! I’m particularly interested in questions of governance and authority—how state and non-state actors wield political power, and how they develop the sophistication and deployment of these mechanisms over time. I’m also studying Burmese language. One day I will delight an unsuspecting busload of passengers by belting out fluent Burmese karaoke.

What was one of the most important things you gained as a result of your PiA experience?

Oh, there are so many—resourcefulness, perspective, a new professional direction, endless fond memories, many life-long friendships, and so much more. The new skills are pretty great too: I can teach, shower while holding a candle, drive an elephant, and even talk vendors into giving me the local price. But above all, I value the lessons in versatility. If you learn to adapt, you can survive and find contentment anywhere.

What advice would you give to current PiA fellows in the field? 

1.    All the alumni say this, and they’re right: explore and travel as often as you can. Twenty years from now you’re not going rue the cost of that spontaneously-purchased Air Asia budget flight. You’re going to laugh, “Remember that time in Yogyakarta when…”

2.    Put your heart into your work and travel. A PiA post puts you in a position to positively affect a lot of lives, often in ways you don’t immediately recognize or understand. Make the most of it—for your own betterment and especially for those around you.

3.   Maintain the connection to your fellowship country after you leave. Keep up with the local papers, stay in touch with colleagues and students, and visit when you can. This can be a mere 1-year memory or a robust life-long relationship; the rewarding PiA experience doesn’t have to end with your fellowship.

4.   You guessed it! Always wear a helmet when you motorbike.

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