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Service Learning

Students Reap Far More than They Sow


Students Reap Far More than They Sow


Beginning with required public service courses, a new wave of service-oriented learning is rising on Taiwan's college campuses, waking youngsters to the notion that this world is worth changing after all.

Students Reap Far More than They Sow

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 435 )

Having just defended her master's thesis, Chang Hsiao-fang, now a doctoral candidate at Tsing Hua University's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, was running late and hadn't even the time to collect herself before boarding a plane for Nepal – sometimes referred to in Chinese as "God's country," perched as it is closest to the heavens at the roof of the world – to begin a 45-day stint as an international volunteer.

But the path to heaven can be tortuous indeed. Student volunteers heading into the Himalayan republic to assist at summer programs promoting basic sanitation and preventive health measures in rural villages will encounter no electricity and no running water. All water must be hauled up from the bottom of the mountain. For bathing, laundry and washing dishes, each person is allotted just two liters per day, not enough to fill two washroom sinks. Chang Ching-yu, the group's animated lead instructor, says under the most difficult of circumstances the student volunteers can surprise with their imaginative resourcefulness, somehow able to wash their hair with just the tiniest amount of available water.

In summer heat that can reach 40 degrees Celsius, the student volunteers learn to give the local gesture of respect – getting down on one knee and bringing both hands together in prayer-like greeting – before taking patients' temperatures with aural thermometers. They learn that every week there will be three or four days with no power and they'll be bathing and eating by candlelight. They learn to come to terms with wretched disease and to deal compassionately with patients covered from head to toe in festering boils and women whose long hair is infested with head lice.

Wave of Service on College Campuses

This is National Tsing Hua University's International Volunteer Corps project. Now in its fourth year, the university encourages students to sign on with the corps to volunteer for overseas service in places like Ghana, Tanzania, Indonesia and Nepal and has already made headway on establishing a volunteer service learning center whereby students can receive academic credit for their real-life volunteer experiences.

Service learning is becoming one of the hot fields of study on public and private campuses. As of 2006 nearly 100 institutions of higher learning in Taiwan had designed service learning courses and, at the request of the Ministry of Education, formally included them in their academic curricula. One need only type the Chinese for "service learning" into an Internet search engine to see countless university service network pages come tumbling across the screen.

National Taiwan University, for example, has begun to place a high priority on service learning, even expanding its program overseas. NTU's president, Dr. Si-Chen Lee, says the service ethos initially started close to home, helping to tidy up around Lung An Elementary School and Ho Ping Senior High School in the vicinity of the university campus. Things later moved farther afield, to remote areas of Taiwan and China's Guangxi and Qinghai provinces.

"This is about living beings helping others in their lives. By going to serve, to understanding, they gain a sense of empathy. This naturally helps students learn the skills they need in life," Lee says.

Down south at Kaohsiung Medical University, service learning used to be offered as a one-semester, two-credit course strictly for students of medicine, but interest proved tepid.

In 2007, the university instituted a one-year, no-credit service learning requirement for students in its schools of medicine, pharmacology, nursing and dentistry, extending the requirement throughout the university system the following year and cooperating with non-profit organizations and medical groups in the Kaohsiung metropolitan area.

In their first semester students are required to compose a service manual from first-hand observation at a local medical organization. In their second semester, they're required to go hands-on working in that organization.

Furthermore, to any student that has served as an officer in an on-campus extracurricular society, the university now offers a "certification of leadership ability," beneficial for future employment.

During the 2009 World Games held in Kaohsiung last July, the city mobilized the participation of more than 6,000 volunteers, among them 288 Kaohsiung Medical University students, whom Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu took the time to personally recognize with an on-campus awards presentation.

"The purpose of an education is actually to bring forth a student's latent abilities," says Tien-Hung Lu, director of Kaohsiung Medical University's Center of General Education. If students can learn through contact with people how to give, how to care for others, then they will begin to demand of themselves and to grow. Young people are naturally vibrant and full of passion. The service curriculum is merely to remind them that in the eyes of society they can transform themselves from the softness of a "peach" into the tough exterior of a "durian."

The Seeds of Service Can Change a Life

Hsu Chih-chie, a fresh-faced senior in Tsing Hua's foreign language department who returned from Nepal this past summer, breathlessly related how she spent the entire previous year composing her planning book and raising travel funds.

"To raise money you have to persuade other people, but before you can do that, you have to persuade yourself," she says. This is often the hardest part. During the constant discussions she and her colleagues had about the value of international volunteer work, they discovered, "This world is worth the effort to change it."

"Although we live in a society that demands efficiency, effect and results, the priceless thing about volunteer work is that it can't be quantified. Being a volunteer, you realize there are other ways to improve the environment and society," Hsu said of her 45 days in Nepal, where her experiences actually seem to have enriched her beyond the effort expended.

After more than 30 years as an educator, Tien-Hung Lu has seen generations of students come and go, and his expectations of service learning are modest yet profound.

"There's no way to force a kid to get something specific from this. It's more like tossing a seed into their life," he says. "If it moves them a little, it may change their life."

The veteran educator knows that if you are not moved, the emotion will not be translated into action, and the road won't take you very far.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

Chinese Version: 大學的服務課  收穫遠比付出多