Wilson Zhang

middlebury college, vermont, usa

  TASSEL volunteer Wilson Zhang with his students at the Rattinak TASSEL School, 2016.

TASSEL volunteer Wilson Zhang with his students at the Rattinak TASSEL School, 2016.

I joined TASSEL in tenth grade, after listening to Joji’s presentation. Looking at the photos of Cambodian children, I thought about the teachers I had and the life ahead of me. The education they didn’t have and the future they won’t have. Why did I have so much, and they so little? I felt guilty for being ignorant. Of being idle. I was naïve. I saw the world as a scale, tipped in my favor. The least I could do was lend my time and education- because of course, that would somehow balance the scale.

Later that year, I visited Cambodia for the first time.  After getting back to Tokyo, I desperately wanted to take initiative. But I couldn’t. I was stymied by my inexperience, busy schedule, and the broken structure of my school’s chapter.

  Wilson greeting his students at the Banan TASSEL School, 2016.

Wilson greeting his students at the Banan TASSEL School, 2016.

An opportunity to do more for TASSEL arose in the spring of that year, when we decided to lead an independent trip to Cambodia. We spent weeks sorting out logistics. We communicated with Joji, booked flights, wrote schedules, talked to concerned adults, and gathered a group of focused volunteers. At around the same time, I took over the reins of my chapter from a graduating senior and organized a fundraising event to at our school carnival. I borrowed smoothie machines and ingredients from alumni, organized volunteers, and sent our chapter’s first donations to TASSEL. I saw a glimpse of what our chapter could achieve when we shed our sympathetic mindset and embraced action.

That summer, I flew to Cambodia again, more motivated than before. I talked to more villagers, children, and local teachers. I studied the history which was at the root of the villagers’ struggles. Soon after returning, I planned for the year ahead, beginning with recruiting.  When school reconvened, my friends and I talked to different freshmen classes, set up a recruiting booth, and sparked conversations on poverty.  I talked to my friends, who talked to their friends, and by word of mouth, our chapter grew to 40 members by the end of the month. From there, I established leadership roles, scheduled regular meetings and created a communication network through Facebook. Because most volunteers were new, I wrote a training plan and asked veteran volunteers to lead new teachers. In a few weeks, we turned a group of students with no experience into competent teachers.

  Wilson with students of the Samrang TASSEL School, 2016. 

Wilson with students of the Samrang TASSEL School, 2016. 

With the start of the actual teaching season, my role changed from trainer to manager. The first two weeks were hectic; I crafted schedules, fixed last minute issues, and monitored teachers.  After this was under control I began focusing on fundraising. During Christmas, I used my position as the President of the student council to ask the administration to allow us to raise a million yen for TASSEL. They agreed, and we met our goal.

We continued smaller fundraising initiatives throughout the rest of the year, selling food and drinks at various events. And soon I started focusing on another trip to Cambodia.

On this third trip, I thought more about the role of the local teachers. By then, I had worked with them for years, and their dedication inspired me. Between the hours spent on teaching TASSEL classes and caring for families, they still found time to study for their own university classes. While their efforts were of a different magnitude, their hard work did remind me of my last semester of high school, when I worked every morning at a convenience store before going to school.

  Wilson sorting medicine to be distributed to children and villagers of the TASSEL community. 

Wilson sorting medicine to be distributed to children and villagers of the TASSEL community. 

When I saw the work that the local teachers put in, I knew that my money could be better used by TASSEL. Still, I was conflicted. Was I only donating to feel good about myself?   Will my contribution really matter? Eventually, I talked to my father, who reassured me. He told me that the right thing to do was to give when I had the means to give and to act when I had the time to act. The more I talked to him about the lives of people like Teacher Noeng, the more he empathized with them, feeling a connection between his own humble upbringing and that of Cambodians today. He decided to add his own contributions. Alone, my donation didn’t amount too much. But together, they were substantial. I realized that I had the power to make change by sharing my experiences with others.  

Although I’m now in college, I continue to work with TASSEL as a writing instructor for one of TASSEL’s veteran teachers, Teacher Samnieng. I’m honored to be involved in an organization that truly helps those in need of education, and I hope that many more lives will be improved by its work.