Londonderry native was working in D.C. think tanks, now teaching in Southeast Asia

Sunday News Correspondent
May 17. 2014 2:50AM
Elizabeth DeMeo, third from right, is seen with some of her students at SMK Maran 2, a school of 300 students ranging in age from 12 to 17 in Maran, Malaysia. (COURTESY)

LONDONDERRY -- It's been just over four months since Londonderry native Elizabeth DeMeo arrived in Malaysia, and with each day spent teaching in a rustic, rural school on the Southeast Asian island, her world gets a little smaller.

DeMeo, 24, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, arrived in the Malaysian town of Maran in January for a yearlong assignment at SMK Maran 2, a school of 300 students ranging in age from 12 to 17.

"It's been so rewarding to get to know my students as people," she said. "As the months go by, I feel more and more connected to these kids."

After graduating from Londonderry High School in 2008 and earning degrees in international studies and political science at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, DeMeo spent several years in Washington working in think tanks.

"Although I was lucky enough to have a job that directly related to what I studied as an undergrad, I felt unfulfilled," she recalled.

Feeling stifled by corporate culture, DeMeo stepped away to refocus on her life's path.

"I thought it would be great to get out of the U.S. and get some perspective from across the globe," she said.

DeMeo said the English Teaching Assistant program was particularly appealing, as it offered not only the freedom to write and teach but also the opportunity to travel around Southeast Asia during school breaks.

She applied to the program in late 2012 and learned of her acceptance last spring.

The program, which is overseen by the federal Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, places recent college graduates and young professionals in six- to 12-month assistant teacher positions in primary and secondary schools or universities overseas.

Sharing her love of reading and her skills in creative writing and the arts is DeMeo's favorite part of her job.

"I've had the opportunity through this program to teach English using those tools," she said.

She's finding that some things are universal - including the ongoing challenges that go hand in hand with teaching a classroom full of adolescents.

"While a number of my students are exceedingly well-behaved, it can be a struggle in some classes to maintain control and make sure everyone is attending class, sitting down, not talking and ready to learn," DeMeo said. "Having interesting lessons helps, because if the kids are engaged enough, they'll forget to be rowdy."

Being half a world away from all that's familiar means communications with family back home is limited. Noting that local cellular telephone services are costly and sometimes unreliable, DeMeo said she uses Skype to speak with her parents and siblings every couple of weeks.

On school days, DeMeo arrives around 7:30 a.m. and teaches two or three different classes before heading home at 1:30 p.m. Having organized some of the school's recreational activities, she's learned that Malaysian teenagers are extremely fond of American films.

Disney's "Frozen" is always a crowd-pleaser, DeMeo was somewhat surprised to learn.

"I'm not sure why they connect so strongly with an animated film about Scandinavian culture," she laughed. "But I can assure you that I hear 'Let It Go' no less than three times per day."

An after-school drama club has proven even more popular, she added, noting that some of her students are currently working on a Malaysian adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet."

DeMeo said the film "Sepet" - late director Yasmin Ahmad's romantic comedy about a modern-day Romeo and Juliet living in the Malaysian city of Ipoh - inspired the drama project.

"One of our best drama practices involved a discussion of the class differences between Romeo and Juliet's families and how those differences might be reflected in their respective food stalls in our market setting," she said.

Since learning that most of her students have very few books at home, particularly ones written in English, DeMeo also has been organizing a book drive. She's working with her mother, Londonderry High School teacher Amory DeMeo, to start a letter-writing club matching New Hampshire students with Malaysian pen pals.

"In terms of selecting books, it's going to be slightly tricky," DeMeo admitted. "Since it's a mostly Muslim school and community, there are certain content-related issues we need to be cognizant of. Action and adventure stories tend to work well."

DeMeo is hoping to raise a total of $1,000 - enough to purchase several hundred books - via the Indie Gogo website. As of last week, Books for SMK Maran 2 had raised more than $700.

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