CLASS Brings Service Learning to Another Level

Students involved in the CYEP hope to empower those from ethnic minorities through the Ethnic Minority Festival.

Steven Ho (left) and Dr Li Wanxin (right).

Students come up with a newly designed waste collection bin to reduce waste during the Rugby Sevens.

Over the last decade or more, the concept of student service learning has become an important part of the curriculum at CityU’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS), where students become involved in projects like the City-Youth Empowerment Project (CYEP) and the 2016 Hong Kong Rugby Sevens Green Ambassador Scheme.

Learning through Serving

When Dr Elaine AU LIU Suk-ching joined the faculty after a period working as a social worker, she was ideally placed to inspire and oversee meaningful projects.

On later becoming Residence Master of one of the student halls, she also realised that many of her new neighbours were not really getting the most out of their time at university. They showed little sense of belonging and had a somewhat rebellious attitude. So, she decided the best way to help them was by using her social work skills to organise programmes, develop a distinct culture and group identity for the hall and, thereby, create a happier learning environment.

Now Assistant Head and Associate Professor at the Department of Applied Social Sciences, Dr Au has been able to combine her two passions: teaching and serving others. In 2005, she started the CYEP, a community engagement project dedicated to volunteering and community service. It began with a few students living in one hall, but has now grown to include participants from the entire university and, over the last 10 years, has involved thousands of individuals.

The basic objective is to give students the opportunity to serve the community and, at the same time, to learn from the experience. Pioneered in the US in the 1970s, the concept of service learning has also been integrated into the curriculum as an effective teaching and learning tool.

Realising that such hands-on experience is a direct benefit for those taking social sciences, the university had previously given students assistance in setting up the Community Awareness Project (CAP), a non-credit bearing, cross-disciplinary programme.

Nowadays, the CYEP projects vary in scale, but all contribute to learning and shine a light on real-world issues. For example, those who receive assistance, though in need of help, are not necessarily open about their problems or grateful afterwards. They may be suspicious, feeling hopeless or too hurt, or simply do not want to be bothered. Students learn that building a trusting relationship can take time and no little skill.

LAU Yik-lam Rachel, a Year 4 student in criminology, regularly takes part in two CYEP programmes and has also been on an international assignment in Myanmar. Her first visit to old people in Shek Kip Mei got off to a slow start because they were reluctant to let the young volunteers into their homes.

“Now they treat us like their grandchildren,” Lau says. “They want to share more and more of their stories with us. We also organise outings and have taken them out for dim sum and to the Peak.”

TAM Tsz-kwan Joey is in her second year and is part of a programme to tutor youngsters from low-income families and new arrivals from mainland China.

“At first they didn’t pay much attention to the volunteers,” Tam says. “But we built up the relationships, and after every session there is a debriefing which challenges us to think even deeper about what and how we can improve.”

Along the way, the students learn important life lessons about problem solving, critical thinking, interaction and effective communication. They also come to understand complexity and ambiguity, and may start to develop connections which can later help career development.

“At the beginning I was confused about what role I should play—team member or leader. I spoke to my CYEP supervisors, who advised me to take a broader viewpoint, to see the bigger picture and think ahead.” - Rubina Riaz

Rubina RIAZ, a Year 4 student taking Asian and International Studies, has been involved with CYEP for around three years. Her self-confidence, teamwork and leadership skills have all improved greatly. At present, she acts as a mentor for students in Forms 4 to 6 and for university students, helping to empower those from ethnic minorities and promote cultural advocacy.

“At the beginning I was confused about what role I should play-team member or leader,” Riaz says. ”I spoke to my CYEP supervisors, who advised me to take a broader viewpoint, to see the bigger picture and think ahead.”

As a team leader, she liaises with CYEP partners and external bodies, which can mean two to three meetings a week. Her cultural advocacy group has organised an Ethnic Minority Festival focusing on four countries and including exhibits on food, clothes, games, and henna hand tattoos.

Working closely with the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children, CYEP has also helped to collect and input data on how schools look at children’s rights, how to involve children in policy making, and what constitutes best practice.

Home is where the Heart is

In 2015, there were already 10 staff and around 2,000 student volunteers taking part in close to 30 CYEP projects. These were mostly developmental, with the focus on mentoring, after-school tutoring, and visits to the elderly. It took some time to develop and execute larger-scale community projects, such as the Homeless Outreach Population Estimation, or H.O.P.E.

While homelessness was known to be a serious problem in Hong Kong, the government had done no citywide “street count” of homeless people since 1999. Therefore, all services were based on old figures. Borrowing the idea from New York, Dr Au organised a local street-count project in August 2013 to get a clearer idea of the scale of the problem. This involved CityU students working in tandem with two not-forprofit organisations, which had ongoing initiatives to help the homeless.

The objective was to get up-to-date and reliable figures. These would enable community organisations to make a case for appropriate and effective resources and help to raise public awareness. Questionnaires were used to learn more about the backgrounds of individual homeless people and the cause of their problems. At the same time, the project was designed to help students understand homelessness as a social issue and to enhance their civic engagement.

In 2014, Dr Au received the CityU Teaching Excellence Award and used the prize money to go to New York with a group of students to visit the Department of Homeless Services, meet the commissioner, and take part in a conference.

Winning the city-wide UGC Teaching Award the following year allowed her to link up with four other local universities, as well as four NGOs, to organise a second H.O.P.E. survey. The NGOs provided training and professional guidance for the 300 student volunteers, who then went out to meet the homeless and do the count.

“We had to train them how to engage and ask questions,” Au says. “There were 40-plus teams and each team had a group leader. To understand homeless people’s plight, 30 to 40 group leaders spent a night sleeping on cardboard in Tsim Sha Tsui, with no mobile phone, and we encouraged them not to talk [about their own concerns].”

Lau was one of the volunteers who spent a night with the street sleepers, in her case in Tuen Mun.

“We had to go to a BBQ site near the beach in the middle of the night,” she says. “We felt terrible at the camp, but there were some people sleeping rough there. We were too scared to wake them up [to do the questionnaires]. You need the skills to ask questions and get an answer and may have to talk about a lot of unrelated things first.”

“ The experience showed the importance of talking to and understanding different segments of society and taught the students to look at such problems from the macro perspective.” - Dr Au Liu Suk-ching Elaine

The survey found 1,614 street sleepers with no stable or permanent home. This represented an increase of 14 per cent over the 2013 figures.

“We gave the government the results; their response was that they have some plans, but no timeline yet,” Au says. “However, we haven’t seen any concrete plans on their side so far. Our objective is to apply some pressure, so we are committed to doing a street count every two to three years.”

She adds that the students also benefited hugely from the exercise. Beforehand, they didn’t understand the problem and might never have met a street sleeper or homeless person. Through the programme, the problem became real to them. Some students have even continued to visit street sleepers, and the CYEP football team arranged a match with the homeless team.

“Overall, the students learnt that the homeless were a group not attended to by society; they are real people who have clear needs,” Au says. “The experience showed the importance of talking to and understanding different segments of society, and taught the students to look at such problems from the macro perspective.”

Tackling the Trash

2016 Hong Kong Rugby Sevens Green Ambassador Scheme, a separate programme from the CYEP, saw 40 students working as Green Ambassadors with the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU) and the Environmental Protection Department (EPD). The primary aim was to increase the recycling of plastic waste resulting from this year’s Rugby Sevens event held at the Hong Kong Stadium in April.

Three student volunteers took the initiative as planners and project leaders. They sat on the event committee alongside HKRU and EPD representatives - and even offered to write up the minutes.

The annual Sevens creates a large amount of waste at one venue over just one weekend, and the HKRU welcomes any help with an environmentally friendly clean-up. Preparations started the previous September, to allow sufficient time for effective planning and deployment of resources.

“I had administrative and clerical duties, writing the financial proposal for funding, while managing cash flow and human resources,” says HO Ka-cheong Steven, a student member of the executive committee. “This included recruiting the Green Ambassadors, making presentations at briefing sessions, doing contingency planning, putting together a questionnaire, and writing the final report and survey results,”

With a limited budget, the students designed a waste collection bin, which they hoped would encourage recycling. It was see-through, and as a result only about 9 per cent of the collected waste was miscellaneous rubbish. In traditional recycling bins, 19 per cent of the waste is non-plastic rubbish, hampering recycling efforts.

“You could see the unwanted rubbish inside, and other people could see what you were putting in the bin,” Ho says. “It seems that made quite a difference.”

Even so, in the adjacent nonrecycling bins, 30 per cent of the waste was plastic, showing that many people still have a low rating for environmental consciousness.

The Green Ambassadors also conducted a survey with more than 930 respondents and a waste audit to get a better understanding of general recycling habits. The survey showed that about one-third of Sevens fans hadn’t noticed any green activities in the venue, indicating that greater efforts are still needed to increase awareness and change behaviour.

“I hope that environmental science engineering and policy will become more important for Hong Kong,” says Principal Investigator Dr LI Wanxin, Associate Professor at the Department of Public Policy. “It is an area of strategic importance that deserves investment.”

That said, the project gave hands-on experience and made it possible to identify problems and propose solutions.

“I’m proud of my students; they were very capable and played their part,” Li says. “You need intelligence and diligence to sit at the table with some very senior people, present your ideas, and make on-the-spot decisions.”

Attending a recent exhibition at CityU’s Library, which highlighted the initiative, Ho said he had learnt to communicate better, remain patient, play to his strengths, and organise a large-scale project.

Those factors may well have helped him clinch a job with T-Park, Hong Kong’s new sludge treatment facility in Tuen Mun, which is also a recreational complex and an environmental education centre.