UWCSEA’s Singapore Service Programme
UWCSEA’s Singapore Service Programme
"I like to think the little things I do every single day contribute to a better world … Just the other day my mum praised me for volunteering at an organisation in Singapore. ‘It’s normal’, I replied. The only reason I think it’s normal is because UWCSEA made it normal.” - UWCSEA alumnus in response to a survey on the Impact of a UWCSEA Education
At the start of every year, students are asked to “sign up for Activities and Service”. There begins a flurry of decision-making, discussion and planning. What am I most passionate about? What are my other commitments? Will I get into the netball team? And, inevitably, what commitment will I make to service? For some students, this takes precedence over all else. For others, it is a necessary obligation, like Mathematics or English. For still others, it is simply another demand on their already tightly-scheduled timetables. Regardless, they all sign up, and they all fulfill their commitment, as we expect at UWCSEA.
Of those sign-ups, a substantial number will be to service in Singapore, otherwise known as ‘Local Service’. Last year, our community gave over 63,000 hours to local organisations, with students volunteering an average of 1.5 hours to a local service partner each week. So, while we don’t often do awareness-raising for our local service partners, nor do we raise money for them, each week a stream of students welcome members of the Singapore community onto our campuses, or travel to visit them in their care homes, hospitals, community centres or residences. Each week, our students and service leaders build connections with Singaporeans that contribute to our collective understanding of Singapore as a diverse society. And each week our students have the opportunity to make a small but direct difference to someone whose life experience may be very different from their own.
UWCSEA was registered with the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) in 1970 at the time the College was being established under the guidance of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Shortly after that we began creating lasting connections. In May 2012 Head of Local Service on Dover Campus, Cathy Elliott, accepted a special award from former President Tony Tan in recognition of the contribution UWCSEA students had made to the Movement for Intellectually Disabled in Singapore (MINDS) over a 40-year partnership.
In contrast to some volunteer activities in Singapore where, according to NCSS, 64% of volunteers volunteer as a ‘one-off’ event, our service programme is predicated on long-term, sustainable and mutually beneficial partnerships. Our older students commit to at least one year of service, and often continue with the partnership the following year. Staff service leaders will lead the same service for years, building close friendships with the partner organisation and with the beneficiaries themselves, attending special celebrations and often becoming part of their extended family.
These individual relationships are at the heart of the UWCSEA’s Singapore-based service programme and they are what impacts most on our students. As a Grade 11 student volunteering with MINDS put it, “I think one of the most ‘false’ words in the English language is the word ‘disability’. This word implies that there is a prohibiting factor within these people—but really, being in this service has taught me how far that is from the truth. Each person here an ability, different to our own, that they can share. Some are loud, some love to dance, and some love to just smile and sway—but connecting with each of them and learning from them in such a fun way is, for me, the most valuable part of our service—and the reason why I, and so many others, look forward to coming each week.”
The benefits to our students are many. As they go through the five stages of service learning (Investigation, Preparation, Action, Reflection and Demonstration; Catherine Berger Kaye), students learn about the complexity of factors contributing to difficulties for the vulnerable in society. Using a systems thinking model, they extend their research and collaborative skills as they develop and plan activities, and build empathy and understanding through interaction with partners. A cycle of feedback, reflection and adjustment ensures that the relationship is reciprocal and that any action taken is founded on a deep understanding of the issues, the surrounding environment and that the needs of all those involved are carefully considered. So, while our partners may focus on the impact on the individuals, we are looking at the learning for students, and it is significant.
But perhaps the most important question to answer is about the overall impact on society of the service our volunteers provide each week. On Friday, 30 November, Lizzie Bray, Head of Dover Campus, sat on a panel discussion at the annual Singapore Volunteer Management Network meeting, organised by NCSS. In the room were over 150 people with responsibility for managing volunteers in Singapore. The topic for discussion was the value of measuring the impact of service activities. As they worked through stakeholder management, a theory of change model, and approaches to data collection, the intensity of the commitment in the room was palpable. The questions to the panel were complex and difficult “How do we describe our goals with social intervention in ways that are measurable in the long run?”, “What are the interfering factors that can corrupt impact measurement?”, “Is this just another box-ticking exercise?” The answers were as complex as the questions: this is not an easy area. But the final comment came from Lizzie: “The thing we haven’t talked about”, she said, “is the impact on society of a group of volunteers who, through their efforts to make a positive difference, are pursuing a more meaningful life.” Quoting Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, she reminded everyone of the importance of putting yourself in service of something that is larger than you are. For us at UWCSEA this higher purpose is our mission, and service is at the heart of it.
Learn more about the UWCSEA service curriculum here