Written by Kavya Aggarwal
A long, gruelling hike traversing Hong Kong’s Dragon’s Back, a relaxing afternoon tea session at a quaint Parisian bakery or surfing at the blue waters of Australia’s Bondi beach – travel holds different meanings and carries different emotions for every individual. Some look for escapism, while others are in search of that one ‘gram-worthy’ picture to floor the world. However, amongst all these travellers, therein lies a group of motivated individuals who trade high-end skincare for mosquito repellents, fancy hotels for sleeping bags and kissed goodbye to modern amenities as they partake in Overseas Community Involvement Programs (OCIP).
Every year, the different residential halls and faculties of NTU organise community outreach programs with the aim of connecting us students with the lesser privileged world. Living 24/7 in a highly developed society, we are often ignorant of the struggles faced by many on a day-to-day basis. Through these expeditions, we are allowed a window into the life of others and provided with an opportunity to do something constructive for the society during our semester breaks.
I was fortunate to be part of one such OCIP organised by The School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (EEE).
Back in July 2019, 21 of us travelled to Phong Thanh Community Volunteering Centre at Tra Vinh Province, Vietnam. The trip served a dual objective of carrying repair work in the community centre playground and inculcating interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) education through daily lessons
1. Pre-Departure Planning
I soon realised that it was not easy to meet these objectives – it required detailed planning and work before the trip even commenced. These included discussions about the project funding, work allocation, and the sourcing of materials. We were split into two teams – the repair team and the STEM team. The repair team came up with designs for playground renovations and attended safety briefings, while the STEM team members created lesson plans for the primary and secondary school kids.
When we first arrived, the playground was in a state of disrepair, with rotten wood and missing rungs. Photo Credit: Constance Poh
2. First Impressions
I still vividly remember the day we arrived at the centre, because everything immediately felt foreign to us. The centre consisted of a main library, cooking area, three toilets and a separately located multi-purpose hall where the children studied. There was also a recently developed computer lab, located in a smaller building.
In those initial moments, everything seemed daunting and overwhelming. However, this was but a fleeting moment. Every member of this amazing team was highly motivated and clear about his or her responsibilities. It didn’t take us long to get settled and start preparing for the work that lay ahead.
The playground repair team along with our accompanying NTU staff member Mr Thomas Foo Mong Keow immediately got to inspecting the swings, checking its quality and taking the necessary measurements. The rest of us busied ourselves cleaning the multi-purpose hall and readying the place for morning lessons scheduled for the next day.
Meals were a time where work updates and banter flowed freely. Photo Credit: Constance Poh
3. Getting Accustomed
Slowly but surely, we adjusted to living in the volunteering centre. My body adapted to waking up at the crack of dawn and getting an early breakfast while seated outdoors.
We were gradually learning to work and communicate as a team too. It was heartening to see that although every person had been assigned housekeeping duties, everyone chipped in to help. This made mundane tasks like mopping the floors and washing the utensils fun and a chance for bonding.
4. Different Cultures & Backgrounds
Being the only Indian in a group of predominantly Chinese-speaking students made my experience even more meaningful, as I was able to gain the most from interacting with my fellow peers and the people living in Vietnam.
Not only was I immersing myself in Vietnamese culture as I interacted with local volunteers and chatted with the school children, but I was also learning more about the culture of my Chinese friends. In fact, it was during one of our group lunches that my friends trained me in using chopsticks (happy to report that I have now graduated to intermediate level in chopstick use)!
This experience helped bridge cultural boundaries and helped me better explain Indian trivia to my peers too! For instance, my peers assumed that I was fluent in Tamil given that I hailed from India. However, I shared that Tamil is only one of the 22 official languages recognised in the Constitution of India and that I’m as unfamiliar with Tamil as them!
The STEM lessons led up to a final presentation day. Photo Credit: Constance Poh
5. Time To Teach
Although the community centre provided the students access to laptops, they weren’t as well-versed in using electronic programs like Arduino, a software platform for creating electronic projects. During this trip, we helped familiarise them with the use of Arduino and used basic components like LEDs, motor, resistors, buzzer and plastic buttons to develop our own small pianos, table lamps and moving toy cars.
These daily sessions were a learning session for us all. While we guided the students as they navigated through the code, we got to know more about their culture and education. These sessions helped me realise that delivering instructions and teaching is not as straightforward as it seems to look. It requires immense patience to help someone understand an alien concept. But when they do, it makes for a rewarding experience.
The days were enriched with cultural and educational learning, not only for the children, but also for us.
Leading up to the science fair presentations, the STEM team had difficulty overcoming the language barrier with the students. Photo Credit: Constance Poh
6. Not All Fun And Play
The two weeks in the volunteering centre had its own fair share of challenges. The repair team faced heavy rainfalls which delayed the progress of the repair work, while the STEM team faced a language barrier as they attempted to engage with students who knew little English. There were also minor inconveniences we faced on a daily basis – such as braving mosquitoes while getting dinner, or having to wait for the water supply after a long day. However, an open mind, patience and teamwork got us through it all.
Looking back, more than these challenges, the memories of afternoon singing sessions and impromptu games of Jenga and UNO with the ever-smiling kids will stick stronger.
On the final day, the children were all smiles at the sight of the new playground. Photo Credit: Constance Poh
7. Goodbye, Too Soon!
Amidst all the fun and banter, the last day arrived quicker than expected. The playground now had a set of new seesaws and repainted swings. It was heartwarming to see the children giving hugs to us upon seeing the renovated playground.
A science fair was organised which provided the students an opportunity to present their Bluetooth cars, Arduino pianos and other creations. Their friends, volunteers and villagers made for an enthusiastic audience, all impressed by their dedication and efforts!
A bonfire dance, farewell photos, a final exchange of hugs and contacts marked the bittersweet end of our stay.
The heads and staff members played a prominent role in leading and guiding the team. Photo Credit: Constance Poh
8. The Team Behind The Dream
The expedition would not have been possible without the tireless work of the entire team. However, the biggest shout out is reserved for OCIP Co-Chairs Ooi Ching Hui, an EEE alumnus and Hsieh Chiayen, a fourth-year IEM student, assembled this team from scratch, and worked around the clock to perfect the programme.
When asked what motivated Hsieh to take up such a challenging task, she said: “I wanted to try explore something different and meaningful, and step out of my comfort zone. (The OCIP experience) was fulfilling and allowed me to get to know myself and my team members better.”
The team would not have been able to turn the plans into solid reality had it not been for the staff members Ms Rachel Fong and Mr Thomas Foo Mong Keow.
The entire trip would also not have been possible if not for Ms Maria Thêu Pham, the head of Phong Thanh Community Volunteering Centre and her team of local volunteers who helped us communicate with the locals and worked round the clock to make sure our stay was pleasant.
There are some experiences that are truly unique and memorable. I was blessed to be part of something so fulfilling within my first year of university life. Here’s looking forward to more of such expeditions that celebrate diversity, foster community development and bring about tangible societal changes!
Read More: 12 Nights in Pangasinan: More Than An OCIP