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An Online Teacher’s Travel to Fight Human Rights Abuses

Cameron at a Vietnam Pottery Village.

Cameron at a Vietnam Pottery Village.

Teaching Traveling: Welcome to the very accomplished Cameron Conaway, Social Justice Editor at The Good Men Project and award-winning author of “Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet.”

Conaway was the 2011-2012 Poet-in-Residence at the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Thailand and the 2007-2009 Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona’s MFA Creative Writing Program. His work has appeared or been reviewed in ESPN, The Huffington Post, and Teach Magazine, among others.

Cameron, tell us about your background!

Cameron: My name is Cameron Conaway and I’m a 27-year-old originally from Altoona, Pennsylvania. I’ve been a teacher for five years now. My first two years of teaching took place while I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona.

I was able to teach creative writing in a juvenile detention center, on the Tohono O’odham Native American Reservation, in high schools throughout Tucson and in an undergraduate Honors class. For the past three years, however, I’ve been an online college instructor for several universities, including Ottawa University, where I created and currently teach the Shakespeare Seminar.

The courses are considered asynchronous, which means that neither student nor professor needs to be online at the same time. This has enabled me the opportunity to begin traveling the world with my fiancée because I am limited not by physical location but by Wi-Fi connectivity.

Cameron at a Bangladesh education shelter.

Cameron at a Bangladesh education shelter.

TT: Fascinating! Tell us how you have integrated travel with teaching.

C: My flexibility of work schedule has allowed me to pursue my passion for writing about human rights abuses. Take my recent trip to Bangladesh, for example. During the day I was able to visit the notorious shipbreaking yards and visit shelters for trafficked children because I knew my nights could be spent grading student essays at the 24-hour coffee shop with free Wi-Fi.

The result was not only many essays and even a forthcoming book of poems, but also a profound life experience – something that will forever shape the way I view consumerism, global health policy and the inner workings of the human spirit. I simply could not have immersed myself in this experience if I was working the typical 9-to-5 job, teaching or otherwise.

Cameron at a Human Trafficking Conference in the Philippines.

Cameron at a Human Trafficking Conference in the Philippines.

TT: Wow! How do you find your travel opportunities and fund your travel?

C: In early 2010, while my fiancée Maggie and I were living in Charlottesville, Virginia, she had an epiphany: her next step to continue developing as a teacher and person was to go live abroad. After much research we decided that Bangkok, Thailand, would serve as a great start to our travels and a great hub to see all of Asia.

We hit the road on December 26th 2010, spent six weeks driving from Pennsylvania to California, and eventually sold our car in Los Angeles before flying from LAX to Thailand.

She’s been a kindergarten teacher here for nearly two years now and we’ve made some incredible connections, one of which was with the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit. Even megalopolis Bangkok, with a population of 10 million not including the 12 million tourists each year, surprised me by how small a city it could be.

A friend I’d met here, Colin Cheney, invited me to read at Bangkok’s first literary festival. Somehow word spread of our poetry readings and I was asked to write poetry as part of a Wellcome Trust Community Engagement Conference for scientists in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

I accepted the opportunity, and while there I was able to network with some of the top malariologists in the world, including Dr. Nick Day, who lives in Bangkok. Next thing you know I am applying to the Wellcome Trust for a grant to write Malaria: Poems. The grant was accepted and it was recommended that I travel to Bangladesh to do research.

There were hurdles along the way – travel is rarely as easy as it may appear – but the entire process was eventually ironed smooth because my job as an online instructor meant that I could travel on very short notice.

Cameron and Maggie at Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

Cameron and Maggie at Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

TT: Inspiring! How have your travels impacted you as a teacher and in your career?

C: As a teacher, my travels have helped me open the doors of the world to my students. On an international level, Americans are known to be a bit Americentric. Our country is so vast that we can spend a lifetime getting to know it and still miss much. However, the world is rapidly becoming more integrated on an economical, environmental and political level and for this reason I feel it’s absolutely essential for us Americans to step outside of our own country from time to time.

I’m able to incorporate some of my travel experiences into class discussion and it often enlivens the conversation in fresh new ways. There are so many cultures and foods and religions and wonders in this world that transportation advances have made easier than ever to experience. I believe this kind of experiential learning is crucial for us to make sure peace remains at the forefront of globalization.

In regards to writing: Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” I believe traveling is one of the best ways a writer can stand up and live. Every day of travel provides material and stokes the creativity necessary to make use of it.

Cameron and Maggie at Patara Elephant Farm in Thailand.

Cameron and Maggie at Patara Elephant Farm in Thailand.

TT: So true. How have your travels impacted you as a person?

C: I think I am ultimately a more patient and empathetic person than before I began traveling. I noticed the difference in patience when last I returned to the US. I couldn’t believe how evenly paved the sidewalks were or how easy it was to drive long distances or order at restaurants.

This ties in with empathy as well. When you’ve spent time with truly destitute families, have witnessed the horrors of sex trafficking, or even just struggled with language barriers on a daily basis, you become far more equipped to handle personal stressors. You’re able to compare and realize, at the least, that you’re not alone, and at the most, that others have it far worse. This is a practical empathy that helps keep me grounded and it developed, in large part, through travel.

TT: What advice do you have for teachers who are dreaming of travel?

C: I can only offer the advice from my experience, but I’ll say this: traveling may very well become an addiction in your life. As you see and learn you’ll likely want to continue seeing and learning.

One way to be a teacher and make travel part of your life and not just your summers off is to get a master’s degree in English, Criminal Justice or a healthcare-related field. A master’s degree is the basic requirement most universities want you to meet in order to teach online, and teachers needed in these career fields seem to be on the rise. Universities all across the nation – and world – are increasingly seeing the benefits of offering online classes to their students.

Even Harvard is doing it. This virtual form of education is sure to grow and getting a master’s degree will go a long way towards helping you land a stable teaching job with flexibility enough for world travel.

TT: Thanks so much, Cameron! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?

Motorcycling through Vietnam, social media kept me connected, protected, and sane!
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