Maths whizz, cool dude and Karen refugee Shar Nay has a big future. And big dreams, too. So far, he plans to become an astronaut, police officer and scientist. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he wants to be a lion tamer,” laughs La Trobe Honours student Luke Edgerton.
Luke is the co-ordinator of the Karen Tutoring Program, which happens weekly in a backyard shed-cum-Buddhist monastery in suburban Long Gully.
For the past six terms La Trobe students have been coming here to tutor Karen refugee students, from Grade Prep to TAFE level. Already it’s helping expand the opportunities for these new Bendigo arrivals, who come after many years in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border, knowing little or no English.
“They don’t have many options in the camps. If they’re really lucky they can go on to become a teacher or a doctor, but they’re the only options,” Luke says in reference to Shar Nay’s expanding plans.
Last year there was a handful of La Trobe students from varying courses tutoring. This year, Luke also enlisted the help of around 20 Education students, after he discovered they needed to complete 20 hours of volunteer work as part of their course.
First-year Education student Chloe Gerin answered the call. “I thought this would be the most interesting and rewarding thing to do in Bendigo, and it still relates back to my course,” Chloe says. “It’s a lot harder, teaching children who haven’t grown up in Australia, but it is rewarding.”
She says the experience will better prepare her for working in diverse, multi-cultural classrooms. “And I think it makes you a better person,” she says.
Chloe’s boyfriend, second-year Outdoor Education student Anthony Messerle has clocked up almost 18 hours with the group.
“I came just to support Chloe but I kept coming because of the fun and enjoyment of it, and the good feeling I got after helping,” Anthony says.
“You pretty much do what you feel you can help with. There’s a lot of maths tutoring, but sometimes I help them with their English; writing and spoken language. It’s basic tutoring of any subject.”
Anthony says the experience has been an eye-opener for him. “I was kind of unaware,” he says of the refugee community in Bendigo. “I’ve always had different cultures around me but I never thought too much about people’s situations and how they came to be here. Some of these kids have been in camps up until the age of 12.
“I feel like I’m a lot more open to different cultures now. The kids have tried to teach me some of their language. Most of them know at least two languages, and they’re learning English on top of that.
“They’re an amazing bunch of kids who are all willing to sit there and learn, but they’re also very ready to have fun. It’s actually really good. I’m planning to keep coming.”
First-year Pharmacy student Gay Proth has a first-hand experience of how much the tutoring program can help these young students. Last year, she was tutored by the group to complete her VCE. This year, she’s back as one of the tutors.
“A lot of the kids need a Karen person here to explain what’s going on,” she says. “They’re already confused with the work, and then they’re trying to learn English as well. When English is not your first language, you have to work three times harder.”
Gay Proth says because of this fact, her first year of uni has been tough, but she’s almost gotten through and is now preparing for her final 2016 exams. She also knows her hard-earned achievements will have a ripple affect through this group of kids.
“Me being at uni is encouraging other students to want to go to uni after Year 12. That’s the aim for this homework class.”