This is my first semester teaching service learning, and my experience as an instructor has been extra special – I teach service learning at a college-level to Chinese students. I live in Xin Zheng, Henan and teach at Sias International University, which is affiliated with Kansas’ Fort Hays State University. Students at Sias International University have the option to enroll in a dual-degree program where they can receive a traditional Chinese post-secondary degree in addition to a Bachelor’s degree, in either Business or Leadership, from Fort Hays State University.
The challenges of teaching service learning have been difficult, not only because this is my first semester, but also because the education system in China is so different from America. Students in China go to school Monday through Friday, all day – this includes post-secondary students. And, the students are accustomed to sitting in class, listening and intently taking notes – the entire time. Team projects are a scary concept for Chinese students, being hands-on and getting “involved” is unheard of.
This semester I had thirty service learning project teams. All their projects focused on recognizing and resolving community and civic needs which would demonstrate their capacity to bring about social change. Now, I don’t mean to be boastful, but I have some of the most amazing students. I have been brought to tears many times both during class and when I have been involved with teams’ projects. Because of the students lack of experience with getting “involved,” I honestly feel blessed to get to experience these projects with them.
When the semester started, my students were timid and terrified at the idea of having to complete a service learning project. I had many students ask for basic lectures and exams rather than having to complete a project. When I put my students into their random project teams, there were many that looked like they were about to cry from fear. And the first session of team meetings were rough, the students didn’t know how to begin the process of doing a “project,” and communication among the team members was nonexistent. I honestly thought to myself that I had made a big mistake taking this teaching position, that what I was teaching was something they would never able to comprehend, and that it was a waste of time and effort.
However, I was wrong! Now they are completely different students, and people. I cannot explain in words how much their self-confidence has improved, I am in tears now thinking about it. Back in August, these students never would have approached a fellow classmate, teacher or local resident to inform and persuade them to get involved in their service learning projects. Now, on a daily basis, I see posters, flyers, brochures and even advertisements for presentations related to my students’ projects. They all developed a passion for their projects and were adamant about making sure people were aware and involved with what they were doing – and they did this because they understood it was a need that required attention. These students have turned into adults, they no longer just think of just themselves. I have had many students come up to me and tell me about another community or civic need that they were involved in, simply because they wanted to.
A few of the projects that created the “brightest impact” this semester include:
- Increasing the awareness of students’ poor health on campus.
- The students’ health here is very poor because their schooling always comes first. They are constantly studying, will miss meals and go days without leaving their dorm rooms because they are studying for an exam or writing one of many papers. And their stress level is outrageous, parents put a lot of pressure on their children to earn high marks in school, so smoking a cigarette and binge drinking are a common way to cope. Some of my teams addressed this need by creating posters, flyers and brochures about the importance of good health. They also held events on campus and at the local gym to encourage students to exercise, explaining how to maintain good health and why doing so is important. I know these projects were very successful because I have personally seen more students out walking or jogging. I have been living in Xin Zheng, Henan for the past two years and I have never seen so many students at the gym, now I have to wait for a treadmill when I used to have my pick of many.
- Increasing the awareness of safe sex/abstinence practices on campus.
- In China, students do not receive any form of sex education, or even talk about the topic with their parents, it is considered to be too embarrassing. The pregnancy and abortion rates are incredibly high in China, not only because of the large population, but also because of their lack of information and awareness. Peer pressure is incredibly strong here, the maturity level is lower than that of an American college student and girls are very submissive, so many girls feel pressured into sex. I was so proud of this team, because they took on a challenge that most students would be scared of. At first, I worried about how this group of girls would address the issue – especially because the female population has a lower level of respect here and this topic is embarrassing for them. However, these girls campaigned and held the best student presentation I had ever seen, there was only standing room in the auditorium. And to make my heart overflow with even more pride, this team talked to local doctors and got them to come to their presentations to discuss sexual transmitted diseases, pregnancy and abortion.
- Fundraising and advocating for local elderly, disabled and orphan housing.
- Xin Zheng, Henan a very poor rural community. Some of the housing communities lack heating and sanitary living conditions. Even though China has a large population, there are only a small number of individuals who are aware or willing to help. The Chinese population is very kind to children and the elderly, but only to those that they see, the individuals that need help and assistance that are not publically visible are often forgot about. One of my teams raised enough money through fundraising to buy gloves, scarves and socks for entire orphanage, something they desperately needed as the bitter winter approached.
- Improving the cultural misunderstanding between the locals and foreign faculty.
- Because of the affiliation with Fort Hays State University, there are many foreigners living in Xin Zheng, Henan. And, at times, there are misunderstanding because us foreigners forget where we are, and the locals forget that we are not from China. One of my teams organized several “mingling” events where foreigners and local Chinese citizens could meet and discuss, through translation and use of hand signals – like charades, the differences that cause frustration among the two. The students observed these events, going around talking to those who attended and having surveys. With all their survey results and notes from the “mingling” events, they created an amazing booklet about the cultural differences between Chinese and Westerners. The booklet included common cultural differences and helpful suggestions to deal with local residents or foreigners. To make it even better, the students were able to get a printing company to print free copies that were disbursed all across campus and within our community, in both Chinese and English so everyone was able to read the booklet.
To sum up my experience with service learning, I have to say that I feel honored to a teacher, lucky to have my wonderful students and blessed to get to see them evolve into China’s future leaders. Not only did my students identify key social issues, develop and sustain coalitions but they implemented effective strategies and tactics while engaging in action to bring about change – and it was all a new concept to them. They did it so well and made me the most appreciative and proudest teacher. I only have two weeks left teaching these wonderful students, and although I am sad that I won’t be teaching them anymore, I am so thrilled that they have established the following skills, and all within one semester:
- They understand leadership.
- They can self-reflect, think critically, and have a holistic perspective.
- They can demonstrate the ability to work in a team environment
- They are aware that honesty serves as the heart of integrity.
- They can display personal responsibility.
- They are now able to establish trusting relationships.
- They can recognize community and civic needs.
- They possess and an attitude of broader social concerns.
- They are able to see problems from several different views.
- They have the ability to develop a vision for the future intended to resolve issues.
- They understand and articulate attributes of community populations.
- They have the ability to ask probing questions.
- They understand the role of perseverance in the leadership process.
- They are able to participate in leadership under stressful and adverse situations.
- They can have the ability to effectively communicate their knowledge orally.
This truly shows just how powerful and beneficial service learning is!
Written by: Heather Kriley, MBA, International Instructor, Department of Leadership Studies, Fort Hays State University
Disclaimer, all thoughts and opinions are those of Heather Kriley.