Language study combined my love of travel and communicating. Before starting at Southampton, I was just back from a gap year teaching in rural India. I still had itchy feet to travel, so the prospect of another year abroad in Europe as part of the course was very appealing.
Definitely the year abroad in France and Italy! In Southampton, I made great friends with my flatmates as well as through my course and the University’s drama group. Also, I loved the independence of living and working for myself.
Serve Direct is a small, local charity that we set up in 2006 with friends, some of whom are fellow Southampton graduates. My husband Jerry studied Mechanical Engineering from 1979-1982 and Michèle Ball, our co-founder along with husband Phil, also studied Midwifery from 2003 – 2006.
Our work is based around a long-term partnership we have with a secondary school in rural Uganda, Wobulenzi Town Academy. We support the school behind the scenes, helping to provide a good quality education for those who would not normally be able to afford to go to school.
On the same site we also run a health centre (The Rock) and an innovative primary literacy project called The Bridge. Our greatest strength is the excellent Ugandan team that we work with, who lead the three projects.
It was certainly interesting and challenging, but not at all dull! We moved out to Uganda in 2009, with two of our three children to live and work full-time. We had a lot to juggle and there were plenty of steep learning curves for all of us.
At that time, we were looking for a change of direction from living and working in the UK, but we soon found that we were using a whole range of skills – both practical and academic – in a completely new environment. It was scary but exciting, and we all benefitted from living there permanently, getting to know the people and the country.
Seeing the secondary school grow, develop and thrive is very exciting, especially as it is now financially independent and self-sustaining. Education really does have the potential to lift a young person out of poverty.
Through establishing the secondary school, we identified the need for children to access greater literacy support and so we devised The Bridge Primary Resource Centre, a unique literacy project. It bridges the gap that prevents many kids from moving up from primary to secondary school, because in Uganda a child must pass a difficult primary exam to access secondary school. A child in a poorly resourced, rural school is severely disadvantaged, but The Bridge gives access to booster lessons in key subjects, and also has a community library to develop a reading culture from an early age.
Since the project started four years ago, schools are reporting positive changes in literacy levels and exam results. The focus is on supporting local schools in every way we can, so we are looking to build two new Bridge centres in 2017. The running costs are relatively low (about £10,000 per year), but the results are clearly worthwhile.
Language learning, teaching and developing communication skills have been core to what I have been doing since university. Working effectively in different cultures requires people skills, resilience, a considerable amount of flexibility and a good sense of humour!
I think that whatever course you take, you can acquire skills and form opinions that shape what you do afterwards. What I’m doing now is a real combination of skills, interests and experiences developed over many years, but I couldn’t possibly have foreseen it – you only realise that with the benefit of hindsight. Ordinary people can be part of effecting great change.
For more information about ServeDirect, visit: www.servedirect.org
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