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Student Spotlight: Austin Whitehead

Austin Whitehead
Austin Whitehead

After receiving an internship offer from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), LLP, I didn't think things could get much better. I had finally gotten my foot in the door of one of the largest professional services firms in the world. I felt humbled just to receive an internship offer, so when a mass email went out to 3,200 interns from all over the United States explaining how 150 interns would have the opportunity to take part in PwC's Project Belize, an event where 400 PwC employees go to Belize to teach financial literacy and entrepreneurship to underprivileged students on behalf of the firm, I felt that there was no way that I would be selected. Despite my 5 percent odds of being selected, I applied for the position by writing an essay on the topic: "What differentiates you and why should you be selected for Project Belize?" After a few weeks of waiting, I was contacted by PwC's national recruiting office and informed that I was selected to participate in Project Belize.

When I arrived in Belize I had an idea of what to expect in terms of the culture as my father, who now owns Whitehead Real Estate in Salisbury, MD, was born into poverty in Barbados, an island located in the Caribbean. Although Belize and Barbados are known for their beautiful resorts and beaches, I knew we were not going to be experiencing those luxuries. Like Barbados, the roads, houses and schools were run down and falling apart. The vehicles we were transported in were always manned with a police officer for our safety. The schools had at least eight guards every day. The water, unless filtered, was unsanitary and would make you sick if consumed. The plumbing systems were substandard compared to that of the U.S., so you were not allowed to flush toilet paper after going to the bathroom. The toilet paper was to be put into a trash can to be disposed of separately. Although I was prepared for the culture, unlike some of my peers, I was very nervous to have to teach a classroom full of children financial literacy and entrepreneurship for almost an entire week. I was not scared of the fact that I was going to be teaching kids, as I love kids, but I was nervous that I would forget to go over something from the curriculum or that I would not be able to keep the kids engaged in order to positively impact their outlook on being financially literate.

Austin1      Austin2

The first day of teaching was definitely a learning experience for my group. Including myself, my teaching group consisted of four PwC employees from across the U.S. There were two interns, a tax attorney and an advisory manager. We were faced with the task of teaching financial literacy and entrepreneurship to 14, 9-to-14 year olds. From the beginning, we stuck straight to the curriculum. We were determined to emphasize the importance of the material we were given to teach. Although I was very enthusiastic in my teaching, I could tell that I was losing the kids' engagement as the day went on. To make things worse, the kids thought it would be funny to speak to us in Kriol, a very broken English. I was able to understand a small amount of what the kids were saying because the Barbados locals speak broken English, but it is not as extreme as Kriol. At the end of day one, my group agreed that a new teaching strategy was needed. A strategy that would incorporate more games and time outside, something that would keep the kids engaged throughout the day. We were prepared and ready for a new day.

Going into day two, my group was motivated and excited to implement our new strategy, but because of an influx of new children, I was asked to take on a new class. The new class included 16, 5-to-8 year old children. Although excited to be asked to help, I knew that teaching financial literacy and entrepreneurship to 16, 5-to-8 year old students was going to be a challenge. As the day went on, I began to realize that sticking to the curriculum and trying to emphasize its material was not going to get me close with the students. By midday I had thrown away the curriculum, implemented more games and spent time outside. This was the greatest change I could have made. The students had opened up so much that they had become eager to learn what I had originally tried to teach. To the administrations surprise, by the end of the week I had 16, 5-to-8 year old students creating drawings of the types of businesses they wanted to own when they became adults. The student's business ideas ranged from: fruit shops, fish markets, clothing stores, jewelry stores and much more. Best of all, I was able to get every student comfortable enough to present their business plan to the rest of the class.

Austin3     Austin4

The best advice I can give to someone who is looking to participate in an event like Project Belize is to build a relationship with the people you are serving. I failed at teaching the curriculum at first because I never built that initial relationship. Building that initial relationship is crucial if you want the children to open up. After the children begin to open up, you are then able to show that you have a genuine interest in their well being and future success. Once the children understand that they become like a sponge, eager to absorb everything you have to teach.

Project Belize has definitely been a life-changing experience for me. It has made me eager to become involved in many more community service events at home as well as abroad. Although it may be nerve racking at first, I strongly encourage anyone who hasn't participated in a community service event like Project Belize to do so because the feeling of being able to positively change the lives of the underprivileged is unmatchable.

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