International Literacy Day: Empowerment through reading, writing and critical thinking

 Reading and writing open doors of opportunity and provide a path to well-being – from securing a stable livelihood to maintaining a safe, secure home, to being able to understand human rights.

International Literacy Day doesn’t get a whole lot of attention in Canada. The CIA World Factbook says 99 per cent of us can can read and write. Why should we care what’s happening in the rest of the world? Because education increases opportunities. It diminishes povery and suffering. It can decrease the gap in developing nations between the few haves and the many have nots, making for more stable, healthy communities. This lessens the risk of unrest which ultimately affects us all.

Here in Vietnam, where I am working with WUSC, 94 per cent of adults and youth (24+) are literate. A high and healthy rate, yes? But there are problems. Gender, regional and ethnic disparities bar access to education and there is 35 per cent illiteracy in remote areas. More than 75 per cent of the ethnic Dao and H’mong peoples are illiterate. High rates of poverty, poorly equipped schools and lack of information cause a high dropout rate in rural villages, perpetuating a marginalized population.

WUSC, supported by the government of Canada, focuses on reducing poverty through better livelihood skills. In Vietnam’s industrial zones education and training institutions are struggling to meet the demands of the growing labour market.  As a result, young workers are stuck in low-paying jobs. WUSC’s strategy in Vietnam, through its Uniterra program, targets better training, teaching and more relevant curricula so youth are better prepared to enter the modern job market.

Currently, Uniterra’s Skills Training for the Labour Market (STLM) project works to strengthen the skills of teaching and management staff in eight community colleges in Vietnam. Uniterra supports this target group through training and workshops, and the development of useful tools, methods, procedures and systems that are used to strengthen the colleges' capacities to deliver better training and improve access to employment. WUSC volunteers have mandates ranging from curriculum development, teaching methodology, soft skills/communication, partnership, and IT. Working closely with colleges to strengthen their relationship with key industry employers improves the quality of education students receive, as well as the employable skills that assist them to access quality jobs and support their families.

As communications/marketing advisor for Bac Thang Long College, a vocational school in Hanoi’s largest industrial zone, I’m working with local staff to improve the website and promote the college to potential partners. We’re also developing a marketing strategy to increase enrollment which has dipped due to the worldwide economic slowdown and a shift in post-secondary admission requirements.

Uniterra sent 37 volunteers to Vietnam in the past year to train trainers in the economic development and education sectors. Workshops covered teaching methodologies, soft skills, career development, and partnership development. From what I have seen at Bac Thang Long College, teachers are eagerly applying what they have learned, improving their professional capacities and increasing the prospects of graduates. To date, 80 per cent of graduates are working in their chosen profession and the ones I’ve spoken to admit they’ve benefitted from WUSC inspired teaching, especially in the soft-skills area. One young man was hired by a Japanese electronics giant and will soon compete on the company’s behalf in an international competiton. The presentation skills training he received at Bac Thang Long College, he told me, has been invaluable.

As a volunteer, I've learned that literacy is many-layered. The ability to read and write is just the beginning. By sharing knowledge and building trainers' capacity, organizations such as WUSC are helping to stamp out poverty by creating more confident, employable populations in developing nations around the world. Canadians should be proud.


Maureen Littlejohn is a Uniterra volunteer in Vietnam working as a Communications and Marketing advisor at Bac Thang Long College in Hanoi. Find out more about Uniterra.

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