Passionate about all things Cambodian and Vietnamese – especially food, history, and rural life -- Wesley built a cultural exchange program that brings young people from both counties into cultural dialogue with each other. Wesley first came to Southeast Asia in 2006 as a PiA Teaching Fellow at Can Tho University in Vietnam, and has spent the last five years in Southeast Asia working in a variety of rural development and education contexts in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar/Burma.
With support from the Carriebright grant, Wes created the Sarus Exchange Program. Named after the endangered Sarus Crane which migrates annually between the wetlands of Cambodia and Vietnam, the Sarus Exchange Program is the first volunteer exchange program for university students in Cambodia and Vietnam. The mission of the program is to increase mutual understanding and friendship between young Cambodians and Vietnamese through group living, travel, and service learning. Every July, a group of twelve students from each country volunteer together for two weeks in a village in Kampong Chnang, Cambodia, followed by two weeks in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There are six monthly field trips between January and June to help the students learn about the other country and prepare them for the program. To learn more about Sarus, visit the Sarus website or Facebook page.
An Update from Wes:
Three years later I am still running the Sarus Exchange Program. Our program has evolved into a fine-tuned machine over the course of three years. We are now a proper organization with multiple programs, a strong organizational culture, and an extremely committed and enthusiastic alumni base.
I've learned more than I could ever imagine about Cambodia and Vietnam, communication, peace-building, youth empowerment, leadership development, education, finance, fundraising, marketing, planning and logistics, and countless other things. The Carrie Fellowship set me on a path that has significantly marked every single day of my life since receiving the grant in May 2010. It's allowed me to undertake the most meaningful personal and professional journey of my life.
My proposal was inspired by spending several years in Cambodia and Vietnam and observing the mutual mistrust and misunderstanding between people of the two countries. I also saw how dramatically people's views changed when they actually interacted with people from the other country. Having been involved in service learning and group travel programs since I was in high school, I thought this could be a powerful tool for building communities between young people from the two countries, while providing unique leadership training opportunities for them in the process.
We've created a unique community -- beautiful, authentic, and marrow-deep -- of the most talented young leaders from Cambodia and Vietnam. Participants' lives have been transformed. Students who had never left their own country before the program are now studying, working, and backpacking abroad all over the world. Alumni report feeling more confident expressing their opinions and stating their feelings to friends, family members, colleagues, and strangers after the program. Our community members stay connected after the program, visiting their friends in the other country, sharing ideas, and brainstorming international collaboration opportunities. In
short, we've created a space where people from diverse settings can come together, be themselves, and shine brightly.
As for me, I'm sure I've benefited more than anyone else. I've become more confident, compassionate, self-aware, patient, disciplined, and a better listener. In terms of communication, I've become more diplomatic but also more authentic and courageous in expressing my opinions and feelings. I'd even say I've started to find my true voice with Sarus. Most importantly, I've found a second family for myself in Sarus.