True calling

28 May 2015 / 08:50 H.

ALTHOUGH it has been three years (and counting) since Rhonwyn Hagedorn (pix) was last in a classroom, the 20-year-old who was born and bred in Kuala Lumpur has been getting an extensive education about a small part of the world.
Upon completing her SPM in 2011, Hagedorn decided to take a gap year... a decision that she would end up making again and again for the next three years. Interning for eHomemakers, a nonprofit organisation, she found happiness doing what she does best: working towards the betterment of people.
In 2014, Hagedorn founded Project WHEE!, an initiative that recruits youth to travel to Bario – home to the Kelabits which is located in the Sarawak highlands – to teach English to homestay hosts and community guides in an effort to promote eco-tourism.
Along with co-coordinator Daniel Devan, Hagedorn and Project WHEE! volunteers spend around three weeks in the quite untouched piece of paradise. The youth form deep connections with the community as they follow their assigned ladies about their daily activities while imparting basic conversational English skills to them. As she became increasingly steeped in the culture and warmth of the people, Hagedorn would eventually come to call Bario her home away from home – she is now practically local in their eyes as she walks around the village barefoot, going by the name her Kelabit family bestowed on her: Sekan.
Whilst you were still in school, would you say that what you wanted from life was conventional?
I would have to say: not really. Everyone wanted to be doctors, lawyers, engineers while I always imagined that I would end up doing something different. My favourite teacher once said that she could see me becoming a war correspondent.

What has been your greatest challenge so far?
Everyone has this preconceived notion that gap years are lazy. It's for kids who want to travel, waste time and spend their parent's money. It's seen as having no sense of direction in life. I could say: "I'm doing a gap year, and using it to run a project", but anything after the words "gap year" is irrelevant. So I guess it was proving to people that we could do this. The biggest challenge was getting people to understand what we do and proving to them that we know what we're doing. When we started Project WHEE!, a lot of the people we approached like sponsors and corporations wouldn't take a chance on us because Daniel and I both don't have a university degree.
What makes Bario so special to you?
Although I had been to Bario before, it was only during the first year of my gap year that I began interacting with the people and learning about the culture. Once I became open minded to learning about Bario, I realised that the place is actually amazing. People are just so nice to you and it was the people that really pulled me in and captured my heart. The amazing food and weather is just a bonus. Every time I have to leave, I suck in my last breath of Bario air before I get on the plane... and then the depression kicks in. The more I fell in love with Bario, the more I wanted to do something for its people.
Overall, do you think your gap years were successful?
In three years I think I've grown quite a bit. I look at my old diary posts from Rhonwyn in 2011 and who I am now, I can see a vast difference. Three or four years down the line, I'll look at myself now and think that I was such a kid. You never really grow up, you just keep learning. I haven't gotten it all figured out.
How do you think you'll cope when you do go to university?
I think it will be okay because I'll go back to school knowing that it's the right choice. I'm spending four years taking my time to decide what I want to do. Had I gone to university immediately after SPM, I probably would have hated what I was doing: graphic design or multimedia. When I do finally make that decision and go back to school, I know that will be the right one.
What advice do you have for other youth looking to start something?
First you have to have time. Second, you have to hold true to what you believe in. When you start up something it is easy to feel discouraged, and that you're going to fail. But if you look around, there is always support. Lastly, you definitely need money and heaps of dedication.

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