Accessibility Tools (CTRL+U)
Hide the tools

After hiding the tool, if you would like to re-enable it, just press CTRL+U to open this window. Or, move your cursor near the tool to display it.

Universal language: how teaching music in rural Namibia was a life-changing experience for Jessa Delos Reyes ’24

Posted by:
Jessa Delos Reyes ’24 is a music education major from Tacoma. (Photo by Sy Bean/PLU)

Image: Jessa Delos Reyes ’24 is a music education major from Tacoma. (Photo by Sy Bean/PLU)

May 20, 2024
By Emily Holt, MFA '16
PLU Marketing & Communications Guest Writer

When the principal of N/a’an ku sê, a rural school in Namibia that serves the San people, asked PLU music education major Jessa Delos Reyes ’24 to expand their existing music program to include children in junior primary (grades K-3), she initially felt daunted at the prospect. She had taught in classrooms for less than a year.

Yet she remembers thinking, “You know what? If they want this, what’s stopping me from achieving my goal as a music educator, which is access for all? I will take on this opportunity with as much grace as I can.”

As an avid traveler—she has visited ten countries in 24 years—Delos Reyes chose PLU because of study away opportunities like the School of Education’s Uukumwe Project, an educational partnership between Pacific Lutheran University and Namibian educators. And at N/a’an ku sê, Delos Reyes had a unique opportunity: to teach Western music concepts to students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to music education.
It was a life-changing experience.

“I have never had so much fun teaching in my life,” Delos Reyes says. She loves her current practicum at a small K-8 school outside of Olympia but says the connection that develops when you’re relying on “the universal language of music” is a unique one.

“The kids just loved it,” she adds. “They ate it all up. Their engagement was so on fire for whatever I put in front of them.”

Student stands in front of a white board with arms outstretched
Student plays instrument with student sitting in front
Student plays piano as students stand around
Students sit in a circle talking

To plan the curriculum, Delos Reyes met with N/a’an ku sê principal Lionel Samuels, who had been teaching choir and marimba to older students and felt it was vital to present music to younger students, as well. A semester wasn’t enough time to teach students how to read music, so Delos Reyes focused on underlying concepts, like showing musical expression through movement. She also played a video of Dr. T. André Feagin, director of bands in the department of music at Central Washington University, conducting an ensemble.

“I wanted to show them someone who looks like them doing a job that they could never have thought of having access to,” Delos Reyes says. Though the video is five minutes long, “They were in a trance. The whole time they were just staring right at him and just saying, ‘Teacher, he looks like us.’”

Delos Reyes was also very aware of how she was seen by students—how she didn’t fit the image of the white American they expected. Delos Reyes became comfortable telling students about her heritage, and she appreciated being able to travel to a country with distinct urban and rural regions that reminded her of the Philippines, where her parents were born.

Throughout Delos Reyes’ life, music has been a thread connecting her upbringing to her education. “My whole family is very musical,” she says. “A lot of Filipino culture is just music and dance and sharing that.”

What started as singing karaoke at family parties and listening to her parents sing in church choir was soon complemented by instruction in trumpet and conducting. Though Delos Reyes initially wanted to go into conservation—“and be Steve Irwin,” she says, laughing—it was PLU alumnus and band director at Tacoma’s Meeker Middle School, Micah Haven ’09, who pointed out that Jessa had a natural inclination to lead.

four students hold instruments and look into the camera
Three students stand in front of the camera holding instruments
Student playing the trumpet.

“Planting the seed is really where my heart in music education lies,” Delos Reyes says. “If my students don’t go on to play an instrument or continue into college, I don’t mind. To me, success is defined by whether you feel good about yourself and whether you felt like you accomplished something in my class.”

Next fall, Delos Reyes will continue her student teaching before looking for a new opportunity to inspire students’ love of music. Still, it’s hard to imagine another experience like her time in Namibia, where she essentially built her classroom—from the daily lessons to the posters on the walls.

“I learned what it was like to kickstart a music classroom from nothing,” Jessa says. “I created my own safe space, and that was really fun.”