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Teaching the future leaders of the Philippines

Alex Cheung with students

When I first arrived in the Philippines in 2016 to begin my Peace Corps service as a teacher, the glimmering ocean was impossible to ignore as I drove around the island. The water was clear, reflecting sunlight from the cloudless sky. I also couldn’t help but notice the plant life and the overwhelming number of coconut, banana, and papaya trees. The island was stunning.

After college in 2013, I did a brief internship with a small Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization focused on increasing awareness about the crisis in North Korea. The following year, I began my career in information technology, but soon realized it wasn’t as satisfying as my experience helping others through the nonprofit. That’s when I knew that I wanted to apply to the Peace Corps.

One of the major barriers to joining the Peace Corps was my parents’ desire for me to stay on track with my career in IT. Volunteering abroad meant taking more than two years off from my career. Then there was the issue of where I would serve. Initially, I was placed in Africa. My parents and I had many phone conversations about my safety because they were not familiar with the region. We eventually settled on a country my parents knew, and my placement officer was able to find a position for me in the Philippines. Over time, my parents also became more accepting of my passion to help others.

Alex Cheung and his parents in the Philippines
Alex Cheung's parents visit him during his Peace Corps service in the Philippines.

Teaching English to middle and high school classes in the Philippines was hard for me at the beginning. I had not taught before, so it was difficult to create lessons. Peace Corps staff provided support and information about academic standards, while fellow Volunteers shared a wealth of experience that helped me create interesting activities for students.

The school principal aimed to improve national test scores at the seventh grade competency level and assigned the project to the English department. I collaborated with the English teachers to create activities, games, stories, and other engaging lessons for the kids. After a year of implementation, we saw a 7-9 percent increase in English test scores across 250 seventh grade students.

Two teachers and I also developed the school’s first computer education curriculum for the high school. The Republic of the Philippines Department of Education granted the school a computer lab that school year. I used my background in IT to help design a program that included the basics of using a computer and accompanying applications. I taught students how to apply spreadsheet formulas, create slide presentations, and use word-processing tools. As the end of my service approached, I introduced the ninth grade class to coding in HTML/CSS, which allowed them to create a mock website for their school.

My students taught me to be patient and to listen. During their breaks or free periods, they often surrounded my desk and asked me questions about video games and questions related to my ethnic background – like if I was sure that I was American. I had to battle the stereotype that all Americans are white with blonde hair and blue eyes. In the U.S., the question would have offended me, but in the Philippines I knew students and colleagues asked because they were genuinely curious or confused.

I explained that people from all over the world immigrate to America, like my father, who arrived in the U.S. from Hong Kong. No matter how often I explained that I was born and raised in America, people insisted that I was from China or somewhere else in Asia. Patiently, I helped them understand that America is filled with people from all over the world, with many identities.

One morning, a student asked me about the University of Denver. I had never talked about this specific university or place, but she shared with me how she loved mountains and how it would be a perfect place for her. I told her that she might be able to study there if she put her mind to it.

I saw possibility in my students’ faces just as I see the possibility in every person I walk by in the States. They are all people who have the power to change the world. We all have the potential to have a great impact, no matter our circumstances.