Some experiences are so extraordinary they can make us reevaluate our goals in life. For Emmanuel Ofembe, the time he spent last summer working in Bangladesh as part of the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) Project SEE (Students for Equality and Equity) 2010 was just such an experience.
His group was assisting Ecota, the network of fair trade members in Bangladesh that seeks to ensure that the country’s producers of jute, cotton, clay and metalwork goods can sell them at a fair price. Ofembe says one of the problems that producers and non-governmental organisations in Bangladesh are facing is with information.
“They do not have enough information about the market, so they cannot know the best marketing strategies they could use to improve the effectiveness of their plans. So we proposed a business plan for them,” says the Cameroon native, who is in his second year of an electronics and communications engineering degree programme at HKU.
Although Ecota is still considering the business plan proposed by the group, Ofembe is hoping it can eventually improve the agency’s operations. Project SEE was launched by the university’s General Education Unit in 2006, as part of HKU’s preparations for the move to a four-year undergraduate degree in 2012. “When we started our curriculum reform, we did a lot of soulsearching on what educational aims we wanted to achieve,” says Albert Chau Wai-lap, dean of student affairs. He says the university recognised there would be value in engaging students in international service or servicelearning projects. These would be focused on developing countries that were facing problems such as poverty, HIV/AIDS and environmental sustainability. Last year, five groups were sent to Bangladesh, India and Cambodia, working on eco-tourism and rural education, among other issues.
Chau says Project SEE puts a strong emphasis on service and on an in-depth intellectual analysis of the reasons underlying the problems the participants see. It can be difficult to evaluate the success of schemes such as Project SEE. Elaine Chan Kimmui, general education officer at HKU, cites several key indicators: how well the students can identify the needs of the community they are going to serve; how much of a difference they can make; and the way in which they continue their projects after their return. She adds that many faculties and departments are offering service learning projects similar to Project SEE as part of their formal curriculum, and that the general education unit is exploring ways to integrate Project SEE into these initiatives to enrich students’ learning experiences.
Ofembe says the trip made him realise how fortunate he is. “When I was choosing my major, it was all about me – ‘I’m going to be an engineer and I’m going to make a lot of money’,” he says. “But after my trip to Bangladesh, I discovered that I can get more satisfaction by doing things for others. I believe the world has done a lot for me already and it’s time for me to start giving back.”
Watching Project SEE
Stage 1 For 2010, participants attended lectures from experts on global poverty and developed a preliminary plan
Stage 2 They received further training to be better equipped with the knowledge and skills needed during their service project in a developing country
Stage 3 In groups, participants went to work for several weeks with a local non-governmental organisation in India, Bangladesh or Cambodia on various projects
Stage 4 They reported on their project work and provided an analysis of the causes of poverty