Beware the dangers of hiking. “I blame the fresh countryside air for the start of this whole DevelopEd adventure,” jokes Chris Nguyen. On a hike with her partner Dennis Worrall and friend Mark Brown, the trio discussed the possibility of volunteering overseas. “That then quickly morphed into what our dream education-focused NGO would look like,” Chris recalls. 

“What we wanted was an NGO that was completely our creation and delivered on everything that we set out to provide to our target communities.” Chris says that having total control over their vision was important to them, as they didn’t want to be part of a top-heavy organisation weighed down with unnecessary administration. “We just wanted to get on with it and be as agile as possible,” she says.

“And that was the beginning of the collective thought-bubble that turned into DevelopEd,” says Chris. “A random, serendipitous and wishful oxygen-starved conversation between friends.” Once they’d descended back to flatter ground, the details of their plan started forming. They would set up a school in a developing country, educating local youths, as well as facilitating student-led enterprises. Mark had completed a Master of International & Community Development and worked at Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, but for Chris and Dennis it was a leap into unknown territory. Chris says they’d both been seeking a meaningful change. “Dennis and I had both reached a point in our respective working lives where we were looking to do something ‘more’,” she says. “What ‘more’ meant we weren’t too sure, but we did know that we wanted to do work that was more personally meaningful.”

With a Pozible campaign as well as their own money funding the project, they found a location—Myanmar. Mark had previously worked there, teaching refugees and local disadvantaged youth. After extensive in-country research and discussions with various community leaders and stakeholders, Mark moved to Lashio (the largest town in rural Shan State) to begin work on DevelopEd’s school. Hand delivering paperwork to the administration office in Yangon, a 15 hour bus trip from from Lashio, was how he had to spend the first six months.

Chris and Dennis later arrived in Lashio, with Chris admitting that settling in was tough. Although she’d travelled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, she wasn’t prepared for the huge culture shock. “There have been moments where the differences between what I’m used to and this foreign environment are so vast that I just want to cry or scream,” she says. “As a coping mechanism I did take up screaming for a while.”

“There is a large pagoda perched up on a hill that locals walk up in the early mornings. When they get to the top, you have this glorious view of Lashio township, and then people just yell their freaking lungs out. Like, full body, guttural yelling. And it’s usually these cute little old men and women in matching tracksuits and me screaming out the week’s frustrations. Very cathartic. I haven’t needed to do that for a while now though which is nice!”

Being Vietnamese/Australian, Chris says her appearance confuses the locals.”People automatically speak Burmese to me and are baffled when I just look back blankly. So they continue talking at me in Burmese, but loudly, in the hope that this idiot finally understands what they’re saying: ‘why can’t this Asian girl understand our language?’”

As DevelopEd’s Operations Director, Chris hadn’t planned to teach at the school but soon found herself looking after the English classes. “I had no idea how rewarding and overwhelming it would feel to have experienced a full year with a group of students,” she says. “They’re mainly youths from the surrounding villages around Lashio—students who joined us on day one of term 1 petrified of the weird foreign teachers, scared to speak in case they made a mistake, addicted to correction pen.”

Chris says it’s phenomenal to witness their development. “You finish the year with them and they’re giving their opinions, what they thought of their various teachers and teaching methods, what their plans are for next year. These are young people who could barely manage to utter their name and where they were from at the beginning of the year. They even get my jokes and sarcasm…we’re still working on puns though.”  

DevelopEd’s curriculum also includes classes such as Critical Thinking and Gender Studies. “I always ask my students what they’d like to be if they could have any job in the world,” Chris says. “Common answers that I get from the girls are ‘secretary to a CEO’ or ‘ticket seller at the local bus station’. I ask them why they wouldn’t want to be the CEO or the owner of the bus company, and it’s as if the concept had just never occurred to them. They almost fall off their chairs when I ask them why they need to get married at all.”

“Male students given direction by me have then gone to a male teacher to get the final okay,” she adds. “This male privilege is accepted by both males and females here which astounds me.” These entrenched gender roles came as a shock.

“As a female raised in Australia, I am used to having my opinions heard and acknowledged, and my goals and aspirations supported. I have struggled with how women are perceived here as the weaker sex and not entitled to the privileges that males enjoy in Myanmar society. I’ve been to meetings with local community leaders and been totally blanked because I’m the only female in the room.”

Another challenge to navigate is funding. “I wished we had saved more money and fundraised for longer before we’d launched DevelopEd,” Chris answers. “Starting up an overseas operation on a shoestring budget was pretty stressful and still is as we continue to operate three years in. Worries about funding are ongoing and a very real restriction on all the activities that we plan for the school and the organisation. I’m sure this is a concern for a lot of NGOs, especially the smaller ones like ours. We never really get much breathing room.”  

These financial concerns aren’t stopping DevelopEd from looking towards the future. “Our aim is for the education centre to become self-sustaining and we’re steadily making progress towards that goal,” Chris says. “This means that the centre would not have to rely on outside donations (time and financial), yet continue to operate indefinitely—for the local community, run by the local community. This would be realised through a combination of qualified and experienced local staff to run the centre, student course fees, and social enterprises attached to the centre.”

First published on The Vocal.

Photo courtesy of DevelopEd.