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When Two Dreams Meet

Holly Portas discovers her place in education through a teaching experience that happened halfway around the world 

The impoverished people of Bali dreamt of lifting their children from poverty through education; Holly Portas dreamt of educating children. Neither foresaw what would happen when the two dreams met.

In 2003, Holly travelled to Malaysia as a work exchange student with the University of Lethbridge. She fell in love with the people and shortly after graduating returned to Asia to teach English as a Second Language. She joined the East Bali Poverty Project, a non-profit organization driven by the Balinese.  “I was a Westerner and they let me in,” she says. “It was amazing, because they have such different traditions and beliefs. They taught me a lot about acceptance and understanding, and what it means to be a friend.”

After volunteering for six months in remote mountain schools, Holly took a paying position with the Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) and moved to Malaysia to continue her work in a government boarding school. But she didn’t leave her Balinese friends behind. To help both groups improve their English she started a pen-pal project between them. “It was a clash of cultures,” she states. The well-travelled Malaysian students had upper-middle-class urban backgrounds, while the Balinese were poor, rural and had never left their isolated villages. “The kids in Malaysia were growing up in a strict Islamic environment and the kids in Bali were Hindu.” The circumstances provided opportunities to discuss differences, highlighting the importance of respect and sensitivity. Holly was overwhelmed by the students’ enthusiasm and the open-hearted way they responded to one another. “There were no generalizations about other cultures, no biases, no extremism.”

The project resulted in dramatic improvements in communicative English skills. It garnered research funding from CfBT and drew international attention as a model for teaching English in rural and impoverished areas. Holly and the organizations with which she worked were especially gratified that “greater cultural awareness and acceptance can be achieved simply by children sharing stories of one another’s lives.” 

 After four-and-a-half years, Holly returned to Canada and entered the U of L Faculty of Education. In Canadian classrooms she plans to replicate her Bali/Malaysian experience. “We are blessed to have so many cultures here, whether European or First Nations or Inuit. I’d like to develop a project where children teach their own cultures to other children.”  

What happens when two dreams meet? In this case, a chain reaction of global understanding.