A Different Kind of International Experience

Posted by Sam on November 19, 2015

The Vari Reel

Night shot showing the backs of people gazing across the water at Hong Kong's cityscape.
A Friday night among teachers, enjoying the sights of Hong Kong’s famous Avenue of Stars.


I couldn’t tell you who originally said it, or even who passed on the quote to me, but there’s a saying that has always resonated with me: “The smallest amount of bravery can have the largest impact.” Or something to that effect.


In one sentence, this sums up my international experience teaching English in Hong Kong. I remember sitting in my room one fall evening back in my second year of university (2013), skimming through the offerings at York’s Career Centre in search of work for the coming summer. About four or five pages in, I came across a post by an organization named Summerbridge — a Hong Kong–based nonprofit organization specializing in tuition-free English lessons for socially and economically underprivileged students.

A group of students cheering inside a hall.
At the beginning and end of each day, and at lunch, everyone crammed into the main hall for a collective show of spirit.


Although I am no Education major, probably like many of you, I have always been interested in the prospect of teaching abroad. I had looked into multiple opportunities of a similar variety, but most required that you already have a university degree. Summerbridge, on the other hand, follows the “student-teaching-student” model. Any student enrolled in high school or university between the ages of 16 and 22 is eligible to become a Summerbridge teacher.


As a York University student, you will of course have other possibilities to gain international experience, such as an international degree option, a foreign exchange or an internship abroad. These are indeed great options. Today, however, I wanted to tell you about a program like Summerbridge, because I have personal experience with it, and also because costs are very manageable.


Do not let the word “teacher” deter all you non-Education majors from such an experience. Yes, teaching English is obviously a vital component of the program, but there is so, so much more.

Young man standing at the front of a classroom with six students listening.
Each teacher was given two 45-minute classes a day, consisting of up to eight students each.


After your initial training (guided by a professional teacher), it is entirely up to you to decide what you will be teaching your students: economics, creative writing, music, biology, geography, political science, public speaking, art or physical education — you are free to teach what most matches your interests and knowledge. Accordingly, again with help from the professional teacher, you have to construct your own two-month-long curriculum. As a student myself, I found this a great opportunity to apply what I had learned in my own program.


For a little extra challenge (and learning opportunity!), consider that English is not your students’ first language, so you must not only understand your subject matter well but also show creativity in conveying your content and overcoming the constant language barrier.


Aside from your own personal/academic development, I can’t even begin to describe the effect your students have on you. During training, you’re always told that Summerbridge goes beyond an English program: it’s a means for capable students to gain the confidence they need to achieve their best.


I’ve never considered myself a sentimental person, but when that shy student who didn’t say a word the first week of class is leading a class discussion by week four . . . it just hits you right in the feels. Don’t even get me started on the emotional whirlpool that is graduation at the end of the summer!

Black-and-white image of young people performing cheers in front of a bus filled with students.
At the end of every day, as the students boarded their homeward-bound buses, we teachers performed cheers as a way to say goodbye.

And it’s not just the students. With teachers from so many places around the world, everyone has a different style and something you can learn from. The relationships you build with your fellow teachers prove powerful as well.


You live with your fellow teachers for the duration of the program. They are the kind souls who help you organize your lesson plans, who cover your classes when you’re sick, with whom you explore the country and try questionable (but delicious!) street food, who suffer through hurricane warnings with you and who ultimately pick you up after a hard day. You will draw strength from these kinds of relationships for years to come.

Smiling faces in the interior of a school bus.
The bus that took us to school every morning was never shy of good spirit. Or coffee.


That’s enough memory lane for me, but I hope I’ve made one thing clear: whichever route you choose, and York offers many, I encourage you to attempt an international experience during your university years. Check out York International (also an amazing resource for the international members of our York community), see what options your own university program offers and explore the job board at York’s Career Centre. You’re bound to find something.


If you have a similar story, or would like to share information you think would be beneficial to those looking for an international experience, leave a comment below or tweet us at @YorkUstudents.

Sitting Buddha roadside statue


(All images courtesy of the author.)


Sam recently graduated with an Honours BA in Communications.

See other posts by Sam

  • Rebecca

    Great post! The pictures are awesome as well, glad to know you still have your signature dance moves.

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