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Shi Ying


Volunteerism and Service Learning: Going beyond the self

March 20, 2016

I grew up, like the rest of my family, skeptical about Community Involvement Programmes (CIPs). CIP was first rolled out in 1997 in Singapore with the aim of nurturing in students a sense of "social responsibility, belonging and commitment to community, society and country" (MOE, 1997) in which students were required to fulfil a stipulated number of hours of service (recorded in report books as CIP hours) annually (MOE, 2005). Today, the spirit of service among students remains an utmost concern. Search volunteerism in Singapore and the first thing that pops up would be, “are youths really not volunteering enough?” In a society that seeks to encourage community involvement through the introduction of CIP ‘hours’ and compulsory community-related programmes in certain schools, it is easy for one to fall into the pit of “blind service”: service without knowing. The rise and introduction of service-learning in the early 2000s did help improve upon CIPs due to its emphasis on “preparation, meeting real needs and reflection” (Ibid, n.d.). Even so, more still needs to be done to engage youths to probe further on the meaning, principles and notions of service learning. At a time when volunteerism and overseas service learning are increasingly gaining in popularity amongst youths and corporations, it is paramount we ensure such popularity is not lost on the basis of “blindly following the trend” but rather acted upon and guided (through questioning and discussion) to promote a healthy culture of volunteerism.

My journey into the heart of service learning began early last year upon participation in this overseas service learning programme organised by my school, which sought to provide students with a platform to build and carve out their voice and values on service and community, amidst discovery of the self and others. My participation into this programme wasn't a smooth-sailing one. Back home, relatives, skeptical about the idea of service learning and CIPs, would throw at me comments thickly layered with sarcasm and cynicism: “She’s going to Cambodia to help them build houses! Wait, would you dare stay in a house she built? Hahaha!”; “So benevolent, going overseas to volunteer!” …  … Personally, forging my purpose in embarking on this service learning journey was challenging. Doubts arose time and time again, and confusion hit: Why am I serving? Why do I want to serve? Who am I to serve overseas yet not actually be actively contributing to my society locally? 

Questions continued to be raised in the preparation of our journey ahead. The fundamental principles of service learning were revealed to us by our teacher mentors, such as that of Robert Sigmon’s three principles of service learning. Reading Ivan Illich’s speech (To Hell with Good Intentions) pushed us to probe further too: are we doing any harm by entering their community? If so, then how? How do we justify our presence? …? 

Even after we began our actual expedition into Cambodia, the probing continued: are we imposing on them? Why are we there to learn from the Cambodians? 

Such questioning, thought-formulation and deep engagement with locals were what formed the basis of our growth throughout the journey. Being there, working alongside the Cambodians, showed me truly the limitations of our knowledge: we were never in control of the service in the first place. Often times, as people of power and privilege, choices and freedom are a given. Hence, our definition of a “successful” service tends to veer towards impactful service: was my contribution significant? We had to have a significant role in the creation of the end-product(s) of our service. For example, in building a house, failure to effectively and efficiently aid in building can evoke this sense of “uselessness” and hence a possible “failure” of our service. However, physical products are not necessarily the benchmark of our service. In openly connecting, listening and engaging the community whom we served, in merely being there, we were already giving them a show of our support. Last year, I had lain callow before the Cambodians, shown them the failings of my hands in creation. I had sought their wisdom, let them guide me, show me the way. And yes, yes I had witnessed the beauty of gestures and silence, of nods and smiles across rings of verbal words foreign.   

My friends and I agreed: indeed there was a quietening of our sense of self-importance that stemmed from our privileged cultural backgrounds. 

I saw how our attitude — attitude towards those whom we serve, attitude towards our actions — was what justifies our acts of service. Most of us came back with clearer notions on ‘service’ too: community voice carries greater importance than the physical, end product(s) of our service. The simple acts of questioning, listening, and slowing down are especially crucial in preserving the dignity of and respecting the community we were going to enter. 

Such conclusion and enlightenment on service and our mental models of life, society and community were made possible only because our mentors had guided us through a series of questioning, probing and discussion. And that’s exactly what we need today: more needs to be done to engage youths to probe further on their notions of service learning. 

And if presently someone were to question why I went overseas to serve? My answer would be: to be shaken. To question, and to let my (often guarded) perspectives be questioned; to shake up whatever perceptions I had formed from living in a largely blissful country, to listen to the Cambodians, to learn from them, while offering what I can. 

Am I still skeptical about CIPs and service learning? The doubts still surface there and then, and the skeptics back home still rave. But I have come back from this journey a weather-beaten but strengthened sojourner. I know what service learning is to me now. And perhaps, if we begin questioning and probing further, who knows what the power of realising one’s notions on service learning and community can do to our society and perhaps, even the world? 
  1. Ministry of Education, Singapore, 1997. 
  2. Ministry of Education, Singapore, 2005. 

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