Wesley Hedden

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May 13, 2014

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

I was placed at Can Tho University in the center of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. I taught English Listening & Speaking to English and English Education majors. I was fortunate to be given the flexibility to develop much of my own curriculum and was able to teach about issues I found interesting and relevant, including gender, the environment, and diversity.

My students were some of the warmest and most friendly people I’ve ever met. I spent my free time going out for coffee and meals with students and visiting their hometowns in the countryside on weekends. I was also an enthusiastic student of Vietnamese, spending many hours at markets and cafes chatting with the vendors and proprietors.

My time in the Delta was a formative experience for me, and I look back on the experience with great nostalgia. I cannot imagine having spent nearly a decade in Asia were it not for my experience in Can Tho with PiA.

Looking back, what was one of the craziest or most interesting experiences you had while on PiA?

One of my favorite memories from my PiA year was a 300-kilometer bike trip I took through the Mekong Delta over a school holiday. I was nervous before I went because I was traveling alone and had never bicycled so far before. I used a very simple, old bike without gears that cost about $30 at the local market. I strapped my belongings on the backseat with a bungee cord and kept a map of the Mekong Delta in the front basket. From that point forward, it was just me and the beautiful orchard and rice paddy lined roads that took me from one province to another.

I planned my journey so that I could stay each night at a different student’s family’s house. At each stop, the hospitality blew me away. I felt simultaneously like a royal guest and also like a member of the family. I had the most delicious coconuts and mangos I’ve tasted during a stop at a student’s house in Ben Tre province and was able to see Khmer monks lining up to receive alms on a morning-lit street for the first time in Tra Vinh province. I estimate I suffered more than a dozen flat tires along the way, and I experienced even more ferry crossings. Throughout the entire journey, there was always a friendly street vendor, fellow ferry passenger, or other passerby to keep me company and eagerly help me learn Vietnamese. It was an incredible personal journey for me that played a key role in cementing my decision to remain in Southeast Asia. 

What are you up to now?

In 2010, I was awarded PiA’s Carrie Gordon Fellowship to launch Sarus, a peace building and youth empowerment organization that brings together young leaders from Cambodia and Vietnam for a transformational summer of service learning, leadership development, and community-building in the two countries. We’ve been fortunate to experience great success over the last four years and are now in the process of scaling our impact regionally and ensuring our long-term sustainability as we transition to a social enterprise model.

I love my work with Sarus. I have the opportunity to travel all around Southeast Asia to places that I enjoy immensely and that matter deeply to me. The team I work with, along with our alumni, partners, and board members, are some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. Starting an organization that works on complex issues in diverse countries has been the most incredibly challenging, inspiring, and educational experience of my life. I feel proud and fortunate to be a part of such a community.

How did your PiA experience influence your subsequent path through career and life?

Working at Can Tho University, I was inspired by the motivation, curiosity, and generosity of my students. I saw that they had few opportunities for non-formal education and international travel. This planted the seed in my mind for Sarus. Upon receiving the Carrie Gordon Fellowship four years later, I was then able to tap into my existing PiA networks and experience in the Mekong Delta to build support and launch Sarus. Without PiA, there is no way that I would have started what has since become the most meaningful professional and personal pursuit of my life. I have infinite gratitude to PiA for enabling me to set forward on this path and then generously supporting me along the way.

In a word or phrase, what was one of the most important things you gained as a result of your PiA experience?

Resilience, Patience, & Humility

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

I have two pieces of advice for PiA fellows in the field. The first is to take the time to write down your experiences each day. Believe it or not, you may eventually forget some of these incredible experiences. I love to revisit journals from my first years in Asia. It’s inspiring to see how much I’ve developed and learned and humbling to recognize how much I still do not understand about these places that are so dear to my heart.

My second piece of advice is for those on the fence about whether to stay another year in Asia. Definitely do. I’ve never met someone who regretted the decision. The longer you stay, the deeper and more meaningful your experiences, relationships, and your place in your host community becomes. Don’t pass up the opportunity to continue embracing and learning from this amazing experience.

Please write an original haiku on the PiA-related topic of your choice.

PiA brought me
to Asia for one year and
now I’m here to stay.

Final Note:

If you’re interested in learning more about Sarus, you can visit their website. They have also launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $20k by May 31st for those who are interested in supporting this worthy cause.
 

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