Mercedes Chien (left) and Jena Wong (right) holding children at the Foshan orphanage in November, 2003 as part of our World Cultures class trip. Nearly a decade later Jena comments on the importance of this trip and her other service experiences in her future life direction.
In my dissertation research I was able to establish that many students at HKIS experience a transformative experience through their social conscience courses. The interviews demonstrated that many students experienced a deep shift in perspectives and values in their time at HKIS. However, no research has been done on the long-term impact of these experiences in high school upon students. With this goal in mind, I have been asking alumni to respond to this question:
How have the courses you took and/or experiences you had at HKIS related to social awareness and service impacted you since leaving high school?
I have received quality responses from eleven students thus far, which you can read here, but I hope to get more alumni perspectives before seeking to draw conclusions about the long-term impact of our service programs upon students.
However, I would like to post a comment I received today from Jena Wong, who was in my 2003-2004 World Cultures in Action class. She also went on my Kolkata, India interim trip in 2006, and took my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class during her senior year. From the very start, Jena was a sensitive and mature young woman. Her numerous service trips built upon her own strong foundation of personal values. I was very pleased, although not particularly surprised, that Jena continues to work towards developing the skills to serve others in the future. Here is her response to the question I posed to alumni above:
My first memorable experiences with service came from taking a course called World Cultures in grade 9 with Mr. Schmidt and his wife Ms. Talbot. A question that was directly and indirectly addressed throughout the year that helped give me a frame of mind for engaging in service-type activities was “How does giving my time to touch and impact other lives help develop and shape who I am?” At the end of the course, we were each required to write a paper, “Who am I?”. I was only able to answer this question because of the service experiences that World Cultures had provided me throughout the year.
In November that year, our class had the opportunity to spend a weekend in Foshan, China at an orphanage. We were told that these children were deprived of attention and something as simple as holding them to let them know that someone cared for them was enough to make a measurable impact. I had never been to an orphanage prior to that trip, so I was excited and nervous not knowing what to anticipate. During that weekend, I held onto the children as much as I could before we had to leave. I had made several strong connections with the children, so it was difficult for me to leave on the last day.
After much reflection on my high school experiences with service, I realized how blessed I was to have such raw experiences of selflessness, compassion and empathy in a unique environment. I recently graduated from UBC and in my four years of post secondary, I have had generic volunteer positions involving hospital work or working with elementary school children. These experiences were nothing comparable to those I had during high school. I feel a longing or urge to get involved with the community the way I did in HKIS. I also had the privilege of participating in the interim “Children of Kolkata”. I had the opportunity to spend time at a street children shelter, Future Hope, as well as an orphanage founded by Mother Teresa. Returning to Kolkata has been on my mind ever since.
Spending time in orphanages and shelters has given me much exposure to the realities of human poverty and disability of which I was unaware living in a fast-paced, wealthy city. During these volunteer experiences, I learnt the importance of being selfless. I realized that fear is a selfish emotion because the emotion stems from being afraid of what happens to the self. I found the courage to devote my entire self to the children at the orphanages and shelters. This meant not being afraid of changing diapers, bathing the disabled, losing a little sleep, approaching someone or catching a cold. Finding the courage to embrace uncomfortable situations was the best thing I ever did and has helped me realize and confirm my dream of helping people for the rest of my life. My high school service experiences were definitely the driving forces pushing me to realize that dream.
Reading Jena’s comments, I can see the importance of putting students into situations in which they experience needs far greater than their own, such as in Foshan or Kolkata. Such outings ask a great deal of students personally – raw experiences of selflessness, compassion and empathy. For Jena and other students these moments leave a lasting impression that they have so much to give to a world in need.
Jena speaks of learning about courage. During her senior year, she spent her Interim week in March at an orphanage in Pattaya, Thailand. I remember that she wrote in a reflection following the trip of a frightening experience she had with a blind boy from the orphanage that took her much farther out into the ocean than she felt comfortable with. The boy’s love of living in the moment made a deep impression upon her, one that even now she indirectly alludes to in her reference to courage.
Jena’s comments make the claim that her high school service experiences were a catalyst for deep change. She realized that she had a calling to give her life for others, and she continues to live this out in her studies. Jena, we wish you all the best in your “dream of helping people for the rest of your life!”
Finally, I’d like to encourage alumni to contribute their stories of the long-term impact (or lack of impact) that social awareness courses and service experiences at HKIS have had upon them. Please contribute at the bottom of this blog entry.