Postcard from Timor Leste

17 October 2013

Associate Professor Lesley Harbon writes about her visit to Timor Leste as part of interdisciplinary program from the University of Sydney involving education, health and agriculture.

Agriculture student Adam Briggs, medical student Amelia Street and education student Paris Esposito, with staff at Maubisse Primary School, Timor Leste.
Agriculture student Adam Briggs, medical student Amelia Street and education student Paris Esposito, with staff at Maubisse Primary School, Timor Leste.

I was tempted to write 'Wish you were here' on my messages back to Sydney, but those four words just weren't enough to capture what we experienced in Timor Leste.

Our group of thirteen undergraduate students and staff from three faculties spent two weeks in Timor Leste recently on an interdisciplinary program.

The Sydney Southeast Asia Centre acquired funds from the Commonwealth Department of Industry, Innovation, Science Research and Tertiary Education for a pilot staff and student mobility program with Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa'e, the National University of Timor Leste.

Nine students from Sydney Medical School, the Faculty of Education and Social Work and the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment, along with four academic staff, participated in a week long interdisciplinary community-based project in Timor Leste's mountainous hinterland, and then a further one-week discipline-based experience in the capital, Dili.

The theme for our joint investigation was food security. Groups made up of one medical student, one agriculture student and one pre-service teacher spent time with me in village schools at Maubisse, or out in the community with Associate Professor Damien Field and Associate Professor Michele Ford, or in health clinics and hospitals with Associate Professor Lyndal Trevena.

During the schools program, I watched as our Sydney students shifted their perspectives and understandings about teaching, learning and classrooms. Similarly, and beneficially for the three pre-service teachers, the insights from the medical and agriculture students challenged their assumptions and also got them thinking outside the box, especially in relation to how farming practices and health impact teaching and learning in schools.

In Maubisse, when the students came together each evening for an information exchange session, I marvelled to see them becoming familiar with the ideas and understandings from other discipline fields.

To observe the pre-service teachers speaking with confidence about cropping techniques, or to see the medical and agriculture students speaking about schools, teaching and learning, was evidence that an interdisciplinary approach must underpin the new paradigm that shapes how we encourage our young Australian undergraduates to experience the world.

I have designed and co-ordinated short term international experiences for pre-service teachers since 1998. For a long time now, I've known that you have to step out of your own into another's space, to be able look back in at your own, and to understand it more. This time, with the interdisciplinary program, I had the opportunity to observe and reflect on the pre-service teachers' in-country learning through the extra lenses provided by medicine and agriculture.

It was truly an honour to spend a week alongside such wonderful and thoughtful young Australians who represented the University of Sydney so well in the Maubisse and Dili communities.

For the four of us in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, we know that we will never be able to think about education in Timor Leste again without also considering factors such as basic health care, nutrition and sound agricultural practices. It is their joint impact that will define the future for the people of Timor Leste.

Contact: Richard North

Phone: 02 9351 3191

Email: 3130365006342a7b192234422f75183c013b022846231d3c5c1402