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‘Just’ volunteering?: Making deeper meaning in Middle School Service

Claire Psillides, Head of Environmental Sustainability, East Campus
16 June 2017

“Voluntourism almost always involves a group of idealistic and privileged travelers who have vastly different socio-economic statuses vis–à–vis those they serve. They often enter these communities with little or no understanding of the locals’ history, culture, and ways of life. All that is understood is the poverty and the presumed neediness of the community, and for the purposes of volunteering, that seems to be enough.”

This quote from The Guardian newspaper’s article, “Beware the Voluntourists Doing Good” (1) strikes right to the heart of the Service programme at UWCSEA East. It is the reason our students start their service year watching Ernesto Sirolli’s “Want to help someone? Then shut up and listen!” (2, embedded at end) as it serves to remind them to think about why they signed up to for a particular service in the first place. Students are asked to question what prior knowledge they have, and what experience and skills they bring with them into their service group. Much like in a traditional academic field, teachers of Service pre-assess their groups and plan learning activities that aim to meet a set of clear learning objectives. This structured learning journey provides support for students while they strive for success in the highly complex field of global citizenship and sustainable development education.

By following a structured inquiry cycle, or using the Five Stages of Service Learning (3) and by developing an understanding of tools such as the Sustainability Compass (4), a Systems Thinking (5) approach and exploring the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) (6), our service groups begin to build a deep understanding of the issues their community faces. They also find themselves asking questions of themselves, appropriate ones that slow down the urge to ‘rush in and save,’ by asking, “What have I got to offer, actually?” and “How can I access experts that can help me leverage change with my partner?”

In fact, the very concept of partner is worth exploring, as often this is overlooked when designing a service interaction, or, at least, it was in the old days of ‘doing service’ for someone, undertaking ‘charity work’ and giving one’s time, resources or money to ‘fix a problem.’ Our service community partners have been carefully selected because they want to engage in a reciprocal service learning relationship with our students. This takes a lot of time, patience and certainly requires a growth mindset (7) on the side of the partner as well as the teacher! Facilitating service learning is not a module in traditional teacher training courses, and few classroom teachers come into their role with a background in sustainable development, social work, NGO experience or project management. Few NGOs and community project leaders have experience in education and working with Third Culture Kids (8) or know much about the day to day lives of the presumably wealthy and privileged kids referred to in The Guardian’s article. So, it would seem an impossible task to truly partner these two vastly different communities with each other and hope to understand one another well enough to work together to make a difference, avoiding charity, but empowering and learning from each other. Yet this is one of the five elements of the learning programme at UWCSEA and one that some would say is truly at the heart of the school’s identity.

I was one of two service educators who had the privilege to take a group of Grade 8 students to southern Cambodia recently. This group of Middle School students—what knowledge did they have of the culture, context, and community, and who are they to say they could help these people? Surely the very concept of a ‘service trip’ is patronising, neocolonial and culturally insensitive? Isn’t it better just to send the money? Did they presume that the people they were to meet needed them? Did they go to try and understand poverty and to fix a problem? No. Not at all.

These students went to interact with their partners. They went to learn from them and alongside them. For some of these students, this was a repeat experience, which speaks volumes for the impact this had upon them and the connection they have with their partners in Kampot, Chumkriel Language School (CLS) and Epic Arts. Indeed, these partners are regular visitors to our campus, as the exchange programme flows both ways. We took with us eight iPads, at the request of CLS, in order to close the digital divide for their students and to support innovative approaches to learning English into their classrooms, much like we have in ours.

Our Digital Literacy Coaches (DLCs) work hard to ensure appropriate technology gets into the hands of teachers throughout our learning community and this includes our NGO and local service partners. A fleet of iMacs recently were delivered to a local boys home here in Singapore. Is this digital dumping? (9) Far from it. Our DLCs prepare the tech, collecting it from the College community at the end of its cycle, wiping it with the help of the IT team and students in various support groups, and coaching Luddites like myself, so that I could spend a sweaty hour in a Cambodian classroom running through the set-up procedures with the computer teacher and NGO founder. Twenty-five pairs of eyes watched over the brim of their dusty, taped together desktops from another era, their government issued booklets with step by step instructions of how to master Microsoft Word finger-worn at their sides.

Will these new machines transform their education? Yes, with continued support and professional development. The support work will continue with the Global Concerns group here in Singapore learning together with the nine teachers in Kampot. It was exciting to brainstorm which apps would best suit their learning, strategise to set aside some funds to purchase these apps and plan to run sessions during our next trip. Just a few weeks later, a team of Project Week students were there, sitting in that classroom with our partners and working together on those iPads. For sure the first thing the students would have said was, “So, what have you learned since you got them?” and “How is it going?”—not flapping their superhero capes and flying in as if the tech has sat idle, waiting for the saviours to come.

Time is well spent making sure the students engaging with partners know why they are motivated to do so. The Investigation Stage has them look inward, to explore why they want to work on a service project and how they can leverage their skills and interests. The Preparation Stage has the student group exploring the SDGs, the socioeconomic, cultural, political, environmental landscape of a place and its people. This theory provides the background knowledge from which to begin building a relationship with people in a different place, leading different lives, and it is upon this that the friendship starts. Our students speak with their communities, plan to interact outside of the service trips where they can, and engage in project planning dialogue to understand the challenges, interests, skills and needs of their partner.

And only then would we dare to put them on a plane to go and ‘volunteer.’

A comment frequently made on the way back from such an experience usually goes something like this, “I was so nervous about sharing my activity with my partner community, but I needn’t have been. In fact, I think they taught me far more than I was able to share with them.” The students on this service trip came back understanding the reasons behind the illegal animal trade in Cambodia, the inspiring work being done by young environmental activists there to protect their flora and fauna, and the education required to share this understanding with others. They came back understanding the skewed global trade systems that allow people to work hour upon hour, in hot water, barefooted, scraping salt, in unforgiving heat and exposure for approximately a dollar a day with no personal or job security. They understood that to be different, either physically or mentally in rural Cambodia, was thought to be unlucky, a result of bad karma, and therefore was to be hidden away from society. Yes, they saw these things and tried to comprehend these challenges. But more importantly they spoke to people overcoming these issues, rising above the poverty and looking to break the cycle for their children, friends and relatives. Spending time mixing with activists, changemakers, upstanders, whatever the jargon—this is valuable and inspiring time for a Middle School-aged child. It allows them to see that they have a small, but not insignificant, part to play in a bigger system, which is collectively working towards reducing inequalities and empowering people to realise their true potential.

These students also leave an important message behind. “See you next year!”—and they mean it. Sustained contact between the College and our communities builds trusting bonds. It allows us to plan forward and be creative with our collaboration, to identify leverage points for change and work towards them together. Our community partners know that we care, that we will be back, that every Thursday at lunch the corridors are lined with groups of students and teachers working to learn about, act for, and work with them to make a difference. The plans were made together and everyone feels a part of the work.
So, we didn’t paint a mural or teach an English class. We didn’t plant veggies or distribute donations. No—we hung out. We talked. We played. We learned together and we did it in appropriate ways, side by side. And we planned for next time … which is always soon!

 “I think my heart expanded a bit more this year, because I met so many more people to fit inside it.” 

The purpose of these trips isn’t volunteering. The purpose is to inspire and educate children—children that understand the power of teamwork, of communication, of inclusivity and the fact that despite all their differences, they’re essentially the same. The purpose is to expand our communities of care. Trudging back through the fields after a walk to her Cambodian friend’s house, where her friend’s mum chopped mango and sprinkled some of the hard earned salt on it, one student said, “I think my heart expanded a bit more this year, because I met so many more people to fit inside it.” That’s the purpose; and if done well, it is an authentic and life-changing part of a child’s education, both in Singapore and Cambodia.