When a first year fitness student applied for a coveted place on ACPE's international program, little did he know how it would affect his studies—and his future.
By Alexander Bennetts
Scott Reynolds is a typical Australian student. Halfway through his degree at the Australian College of Physical Education (ACPE), he had a vague plan to eventually open his own business and, like many students, was uncertain if he’d undertake postgraduate study. He never expected to find himself wrapped in the life-changing experience of travelling to Cambodia to teach children about personal fitness and healthy living – two years in a row.
Studying a Bachelor of Applied Fitness, Scott learned early in his first year at ACPE that the school had decided to create a program to support the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF). The college hoped that by sending students on the volunteer trip they could assist the CCF by teaching Cambodian youth about the importance of sport and physical education.
Scott highlights ACPE’s size as a key reason that it excels as not just an educational community but as a social institution, in particular in how it encourages students to participate in extracurricular opportunities. “ACPE is very small, so they focus on the individual person a lot. The student services staff are very good. They know your name, treat you very nicely, and there are things like uni games and special events.” One of these special events was a meeting for the proposed trip to Cambodia.
But, as happens to newcomers at school, Scott was originally unsure of taking up the opportunity. “I didn’t think I’d actually get in, being a first year student. I went to the meeting, but I was a bit intimidated at how many people went to the meeting. But then student services approached me and said, ‘look, we saw you at the meeting, why didn’t you apply? We’d really love for you to apply and see if you could come.’”
Scouted out by student services, Scott went on to successfully apply for the program. He ended up being selected not once but twice when the college offered the volunteer trip again a year later. Naturally, Scott is one of the program’s biggest advocates. “It’s a one in a life time experience, but I’ve been lucky enough to have gone twice!”
In the program, 15 students along with ACPE staff travelled to Cambodia with “bags and bags” of sports equipment – soccer balls, tennis racquets, swimming goggles – and then spent the next three weeks arranging lessons. “The first week was very tough because we had no idea what students there were and what level they were up to,” Scott said. “We didn’t know if they could kick a soccer ball or even knew what a soccer ball was, or if they spoke English.”
These lessons focused not just on teaching the children about the basics of physical education, but about ways that they could then go on and teach other children the same information. “We focus on teaching the children all about the fundamental skills of PE and sport, things like throwing, catching, dodge, jump, skip, those kind of things that they can then incorporate into games, so they can pass that knowledge onto other kids.”
The challenge was not just about getting children active but in encouraging participation. In the past year the Cambodian Children’s Fund has grown from assisting a group of 800 children to 1,200 children, an increase due in part to the support and enthusiasm of the ACPE volunteer team.
Before the first trip to Cambodia, Scott knew that the conditions of an undeveloped country were bad, but couldn’t grasp it until he experienced it. “I’m one of those guys who really needs to see something to believe it, and just how bad the poverty and everything was around there... It’s a real shock. You get there and all you want to do is help, and that’s what we did.”
The trip is not just eye-opening for the volunteers, but rewarding for both the Cambodian children and their teachers. “When you’re teaching these kids, it’s very different to Australian kids. Not taking anything away from the Australian kids, but these kids in Cambodia really know how lucky they are and they really want to learn. There’s a strong discipline level and if you teach them something, then days later you’ll see them practising that same thing, because all they want to do is learn. And they’re so grateful, they’re so thankful for that.”
Through ACPE, Scott learned the skills and confidence needed to take on the variety of tasks that come with teaching Cambodian children about fitness and healthy living. Thanks to his experiences as a volunteer teacher in Cambodia, Scott has realised the diverse opportunities offered by ACPE. “Before I went over last time year, I was very keen on applying myself to the fitness career, as someone who would help older people and parents, and even kids, get fit and lose weight, live longer and have a healthy life,” Scott said. “But coming back now, I’m really tossing up whether to continue my fitness course or to get my PE degree and teach in schools.”
Whatever his decision, Scott believes he can easily achieve his desired outcome because he feels energised by his time at ACPE, thanks in particular his two trips to Cambodia. “It’s really changed me,” he said. “I feel like I’m doing something right, especially since I was chosen to go back!”
Alexander Bennetts is a freelance writer from Newcastle.
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