In the early 1980s, fresh out of graduate school, Timothy and Diana (MEd ’01) Schaffter packed up their lives and moved to Thailand.
They figured they’d stay for a few years, but then a few years turned into a decade, and then Thailand turned into Cambodia, Vietnam, Romania, India, Kyrgyzstan, and Laos. They’ve been back to North America multiple times in the last 30 years, but only to visit. Instead, the expat couple keeps choosing to live and work in places that need their help and where they can “most be of service,” as Tim puts it.
Since 2010, that’s meant Laos, where Tim is the head of UNICEF’s office and Diana is writing a children’s book. Speaking from his home some 8,400 miles from TCNJ’s campus, Tim starts by citing staggering statistics.
“I went to a school recently in a remote area of Laos where less than 50 percent of the children are registered to attend,” he says. “Of those who enter, only 20 percent make it as far as grade five. Those who actually do make it to grade five have the equivalent of one or two years of really solid education, so they graduate nearly illiterate. The challenges are just amazing.”
But Schaffter has been using what he learned during his decades of global work, and as an overseas TCNJ student in education, to help improve life for the children of Laos. That improvement can start, he says, with television.
As the head of UNICEF in Kyrgyzstan from 2006 to 2010, he helped introduce an educational television show for preschool-aged kids. It was a hit. Now Schaffter is aiming to replicate it in Laos by creating the first-ever Lao children’s television program, which launched this month. (Click here for a preview and more information.)
“We’re hoping that we’ll reach remote areas of the country, because, amazingly, no matter how remote villages are, they all have satellite dishes,” he says. “The show isn’t a substitute for school, but certainly it can help with preparedness.”
He’s also working to connect UNICEF with local schools and to build preschools in remote villages. There’s plenty of work to do outside education, too, as he helps UNICEF create programs around social policy, health and nutrition, communication, and child protection in Laos.
Reflecting on what drew him to this challenging work, Schaffter credits the Baha’i faith—a religion that emphasizes “service to humanity,” he says. He adds, “For me, my work is my service to humanity, and that’s what keeps me going.”
Still, the miles-long to-do list can be daunting at times. Laos is in a period of transition and without significant change, Schaffter says, its people may find themselves second-class citizens in their own country.
“I have to be optimistic,” he adds. “I’m 100 percent sure that in the long run, we’ll realize we’re one global community and we’re all in this together. But in the short run, there are lots of challenges. Then I remind myself and my team, well, that’s why we have jobs here.”