Just Say Yes

Guest Article by Lesa Sexton
University of North Carolina
At 28 years old, I’m one of the older ETAs of the bunch. I graduated from college in 2008, so I’ve had some time to see what the real world is all about and after 5 years, I needed a change. The rat race was getting tiring and I was ready for something new, a challenge unlike any other. That’s when I decided to seize the opportunity to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Malaysia.
My mantra when I came in was “just say yes”. I wanted to embrace this experience and live it to the fullest, so I was prepared for any adventure that came my way.
Malaysian food, though delicious, is far from healthy. Everything is fried or sweetened and each plate comes with a heaping side of white rice, so I knew I would have to find some way to exercise if I had any hope of staying in shape. I asked about a running group, but no one seemed to know of any. However, one person “knew someone” who runs and might be able to help. I got their number and was told that indeed, there is a running group and they would be meeting the following evening. This person would not be able to make it but gave me the address all the same.
ETA Lesa Sexton with a friend from the Hash House Harriers
The next day as I’m driving to the run site I start to realize how bizarre of a situation this is. I have absolutely no idea what to expect, I don’t know a soul going, and I’m not entirely sure whether anyone attending will be able to speak English. But I had a mantra to stick to, so I had to keep driving.
This is a group that prides itself on punctuality, so when I arrive 10 minutes late everyone has already started. I spot a man sitting in the parking lot and he gestures to a barely visible path off to the right, and I take off. The path winds through a palm oil plantation, around abandoned water towers, and up steep hillsides littered with precarious looking boulders.  After a while I spot the group around a bend and breathe a sigh of relief. They hear my footsteps thudding towards them and all start shouting excitedly, grabbing their phones and positioning me for some impromptu group photos.
Everyone in the group speaks Mandarin, but there are a handful of people who speak English. These individuals take me under their wing and for the rest of the run (which eventually slows into a hike) they call out warnings for low-hanging branches and loose rocks. I was grateful to have stumbled upon them because soon enough the sun had set and the thick forest of palm trees blocked what remaining light their was.
We trooped back to the parking lot together and I watched as everyone seemed to spring into action to make me comfortable. A stool was quickly produced for me to sit on, a plate of food put on my lap, and a drink shoved in my hand. They all sat around in a circle to discuss some group business, and even though none of it pertained to me, you could tell they were making an effort to conduct the meeting entirely in English so I didn’t feel left out.
Once the meeting was adjourned, some members quickly ran to make me a plate of leftover goodies to take home. They paid attention to which snacks I had especially seemed to enjoy, and loaded me up with enough to last me the week.
Celebrating with Hash House Harriers
One of the most surprising parts of this experience was how quickly everyone accepted me into the fold, making sure I wasn’t falling behind on the run or going thirsty afterwards. None of them knew me at all and yet they treated me as though I was just another one of the group. By evening’s end they had already made plans for me to join them on their next run and go out for dinner at their favorite restaurant. We were becoming fast friends J
I have adopted this same “just say yes” mantra at school as well. I am here to do what I can to enhance English language learning at my school, and I trust that no one knows more of what the students need than their very own teachers and administrators. I am committed to doing anything and everything I can to help. Teachers ask me, “Can you coach this student on their pronunciation for the district competition?” “Can you do a lesson on story telling?” “Can you lead a morning assembly for 600 students?” And the answer is always, “Yes, yes, and yes!”
One day the education officer for my district called me into a meeting and asked if I could start a partnership between my school and an organization back in the United States. “Of course!” I replied. I had no idea how I was going to meet his request, but I was determined to deliver.
Thus I began my search, looking high and low for connections to schools or nonprofits that I could leverage to enhance my students’ educational experience. It was in this way that I came across “Peace Camp”, a summer camp that provides positive programming in peace-building and conflict resolution to youth in Baltimore, MD. Working in collaboration with director Nawal Rajeh, we set up a pen pal program that would allow the students to exchange letters with another person their age 10,000 miles away. Not only would they be able to practice their English, but they would also be able to expand their worldview by learning about a completely different culture.
Students writing letters to their pen pals
After weeks of going over the steps to writing a letter, completing first drafts, editing, and rewriting our final drafts, our letters were ready. We shipped them off and then began the long process of waiting for our replies. Days slowly dragged into weeks, and just when I was about to give up hope that we would ever get a response, the letters arrived! I couldn’t contain my excitement and told the students immediately, and they began whispering in eager anticipation for our next English class. The day arrived and they tore into their letters! They spent the entire class giggling, sharing letters, and looking up new vocabulary. The letters provided some great context for conversations about American pop culture, the education system in the US, and what everyday life is like so far away. It was fun to see their faces light up when they realized their pen pal also loves Taylor Swift-some things are just universal, it seems!
Students with their letters from the United States
The incredible experiences I’ve had both in my community and at school happened because I stuck to my mantra “just say yes”. I was pushed outside of my comfort zone in ways I wasn’t quite expecting, and had I allowed fear or anxiety to take control I would’ve missed out on some wonderful opportunities. Having a “go get ’em” attitude has allowed me to see and do so much in my town, more than even some lifelong residents can claim! It’s also given my students a chance to see the English language come alive, fueling in them a passion for their studies now that they know the doors it can open.
For me, it’s all about one simple word: yes. Say yes to adventure, yes to new friends, yes to taking risks. Because in the end, the rewards are so worth it.

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