By What We Give
What sets SMU apart as a “Different U”?
Ask around and you’ll hear the usual answers about our different approach to academics and co-curricular activities — but to me, what truly sets our college experience apart is how every graduate gives back to our community.
Because every SMU student has to serve 80 hours of community service before graduation, it’s easy to think of it as a chore (as I did at first!) — yet, students from the Class of 2014 completed 140 hours of service each: a clear sign that students aren’t just serving the community in order to meet some quota. And as one of those students, I’ve come to understand that that’s because community service gives back to you as much as you do.
Project Namaste VII
My journey of service began with Project Namaste VII in 2012. Running a different initiative every year since 2006, Project Namaste (http://www.projectnamaste.com) aims to benefit the villagers of Nepal. For our 7th trip, we worked together with teachers and tutored students in English to improve the way children were educated.
By introducing alternative ways to teach English besides rote learning (a method deeply ingrained in Nepalese culture) we trained the teachers of the community there to engage their students so they could learn more effectively.
Seeing how our programme changed the community for the better, the warmth with which the Nepalese embraced us; the joy with which they led their lives, in spite of the lack of the modern comforts and conveniences we took for granted—these experiences changed me profoundly.
And so, though Project Namaste VII was a success, I found myself returning to two questions: would our changes last? And was it our Nepalese partners, or us, who benefitted the most from Project Namaste?
I remained unsatisfied.
We concluded the project with a sense that everything we had experienced, that everything we had learned, was as valuable to us as—or even more so than—what we had given back to them. Could this really be considered as community service? Furthermore, I felt that we could have done even more for our Nepalese partners.
I had originally planned to go to Nepal only once, then focus on my academics and career upon my return. But my thoughts, questions, and experiences there led me to different priorities. I wanted to shape a better project for our partners, and guide a new group to share my journey of self-discovery: and so I stepped up to lead Project Namaste VIII.
Project Namaste VIII
Though I joined Project Namaste VIII with a clear idea of how I wanted it to look like, that quickly changed. Our partner school in Nepal had just entered the 4th year into their 5-year vision, with technology capability remaining as one of the outstanding goals they had yet to achieve, so my fellow leaders proposed to re-design our programme to directly address this need—a decision I initially opposed.
Over the course of several days, however, they convinced me of the need for this change, as they were confident that it was essential in order to build a more robust programme for our Nepalese partners.
And because of their conviction, we did.
Donating laptops to the school and organising introductory lessons to basic Microsoft software for local teachers, Project Namaste VIII marked a departure from Project Namaste’s historical focus on education towards implementing technological solutions. This paid off remarkably well, with the teachers displaying unprecedented levels of enthusiasm and engagement during these sessions.
My key learning takeaway from leading Project Namaste VIII? Community service isn’t about going in with a preconceived notion of what we think the community needs.
Rather than giving something your partners don’t want or need because you think it’s the ‘best’ solution, we only serve the community when we listening to our partners, understand their needs, and build effective solutions for their unique sociocultural and economic context.
As a leader, I also learnt that you have to loosen your control to let those under you grow. From our experience in Project Namaste VII, my fellow project leaders and I had our own sense of what was the best way to organise the project: so giving more ownership of the project was possibly one of the hardest things to do, because it meant losing elements of control.
However, this decision proved to grow the maturity of our members, as taking responsibility for different aspects of the project led them to a greater appreciation of the meaningfulness of Project Namaste, and the privileges they enjoyed back home.
When we commit to understanding our partner communities, community service benefits not just them, but also the volunteers and leaders, too.
Winston Churchill said that “we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”.
Your 80 hours can make a tremendous difference. Make them make lives.