In the summers of 2020 and 2021, I went volunteering for two weeks in a small county called Huize in Yunnan Province, China. I did not have any full-time volunteering experience before and applied for the opportunity after feeling like I was doing literally nothing all day as schools got shut and A-Levels got cancelled (and LSE made me an offer) in March 2020.
Quite frankly, I didn’t really have any expectation of what I would get out of these two weeks. I had been preparing for my course on sustainable development for months and I just thought I was there to teach the students a topic that they could benefit from learning more about. But it turned out to be a lot more than that. It was a learning journey for me too.
1. Getting to know a new culture
Although I had done some googling on Huize County, it was only possible to understand its culture after staying there for two weeks. Apart from teaching, each volunteer was responsible for supervising a ‘community exploration’ group project where students investigated their own topic of interest. My group in 2020 focused on researching the left behind children living in the Huize New City Poverty Alleviation Relocation Apartments; and my group in 2021 was passionate about small independent businesses in the valleys of Huize Old Town. I was able to explore far beyond typical tourist destinations, and it was the interactions with the locals that really allowed me to get a glimpse into their lives.
2. Meeting new people and build lifelong friendships
There were around 20-30 volunteers coming from different universities around the world. As 5 volunteers were put into a group responsible for one class, we spent so much time together and got to know each other really well. We also had social activities every day after ‘work’ and I met two of my best friends who I still talk to all the time despite being in different countries. I am also still in contact with some of my students from both years and it feels great to witness their growth and transition into university.
3. Personal growth
Teaching more than 40 students who were only one year younger than me was certainly nerve-wracking at first and it taught me the importance of being flexible in adjusting to new situations (in this case revising pre-prepared teaching materials based on the students’ feedback). I also had the opportunity to talk to heads of schools, local government officers, factory managers, business owners etc. to organise or lead interviews for my ‘community exploration’ group project, while taking the responsibility for the safety of the 7 students. Being 18, it was probably the first time I had felt so much like an adult. It was the most rewarding to (hopefully) have left a positive impact on the 40+ high school students. However, volunteering is not about ‘giving back to the community’, which is a mindset that immediately puts you in a position of superiority. It is also not about making sure the students learn your course content word for word. To me, volunteering with students is about building relationships, broadening their horizons, giving them inspirations, and raising their aspirations.