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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 ( 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.

The Project Namaste VII team

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

The leaders of 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.

Learning Points

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.

Community service: it’s about helping those who work with you grow too.

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.

13,525 kilometres away from Home;

090215 – 060615 | Just like that, 4 months of my exchange has come to an end.  It has been a unique experience, and a process of self discovery. The toughest part is leaving when I’d just adapted.

February 2015 was when I left home for one semester of international exchange in Warsaw, Poland at the Warsaw School of Economics aka Szkoła Głowna Handlowa w Warszawie (SGH). SGH has the oldest business school in Poland and is one of the top universities in the country.

Building C. SGH

Adapting to life in Warsaw was daunting. The first challenge was definitely communicating with locals. Poles communicate primarily in Polish even if they speak English. And it was not always easy to find someone who spoke English – even in the international student hostel of the university, there was only one adminstrative manager who could speak English. Simple tasks like asking for directions and buying groceries suddenly became very difficult. 

It was only days after we arrived that we learned that some locals were very proud of their own language as a representation of their nationality. This was especially important to them given that Poles had to speak Russian during the communist period. We tried to pick up some basic vocabulary to show respect to the Polish culture. Strangely enough, people did seem friendlier even if we could only greet them “Dzień Dobry (Good morning)” or “Do widzenia (Goodbye)”!

Part of going on international exchange is to learn and embrace differences. But if there’s one exception, it would be that racism should not be embraced or tolerated under any circumstances. Once, a fellow student came up to me and shouted “Asian”, amongst other offensive comments, right into my face. I barely knew this student and I was honestly quite offended by his actions. I told myself to let it go because I was alone in a foreign land. In hindsight, perhaps I should have stood up to him. It is a shame that despite living in such a globalised world, there are still such insular individuals. Incidents like this make me more appreciative of the racial harmony we enjoy in Singapore. 

Trying some homemade pineapple tarts with our polish buddies on arrival in Warsaw.

Attending classes taught in English meant that most of my classmates were exchange students and it was really a platform for me to learn more about other cultures outside of Poland. We had to do a project about MNCs in different countries. While my group chose Singapore, the project was a different experience because I could not take it for granted that my classmates understood what I was talking about. It was crucial to set the context for them and I felt like I became an Ambassador for Singapore! 

Another element of going on exchange is definitely the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world. One of my most memorable trips was my trip to Iceland, where I saw the northern lights and explored an ice cave. 

The trip to Iceland consisted of 7 friends including fellow ambassadors Wen Yun, Hong Wen, Laura and Bryan. A bit of familiarity while being overseas is a great feeling to have! Apart from the fun moments, we also encountered a minor traffic accident where our vehicle skidded off the road and crashed into the snow walls formed at the sides of the road. Luckily, we were all unharmed. It was at times like these that you experience friendships in its rawest form – Bryan, who was at the wheel at the time, made sure we all stayed in the car while he braved the gale to check out the situation. The others checked to make sure everyone was safe before cracking a joke or two. 

Northen Lights in Iceland. Image credits: Jacob Ma

Jökulsálón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland. Image credits: Jacob Ma

One of the biggest takeaways is that going on exchange really pushed me out of my own comfort zone. Experiencing new things is a part of growing up isn’t it? Going on exchange, there were times when I had to eat alone (one thing I really dislike) and I learned to embrace that and many other things that are not the norm for me. I’m glad I picked a place that’s entirely different from Singapore for exchange because it showed me a lot more than I’ve ever expected, and I too, surprised myself with my ability to adapt. 

Exchange can be lonely and difficult sometimes, but it will be as exciting and adventurous as how you allow it to be. For those heading off to exchange, good luck, and safe adventures! And for those who are considering an exchange, if you can afford the time and money, go for it – it’ll show you a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view; no one to tell us no or where to go, or say we're only dreaming (:

© 2018 SMU Ambassadorial Corps