Life can be hard for students in Hong Kong with all the classes to attend, examinations to take, and efforts to make ends meet with grants and handouts. But these concerns start to look a bit different to someone who has spent a week in remote rural China, sharing the life of villagers and working alongside them, hefting stones and shifting earth, to build a new bridge for the local community.
"There is no doubt it changed my life," says Jayne So, reflecting on her own experience as a volunteer with the Wu Zhi Qiao (Bridge to China) Charitable Foundation. "Coming from the city, you learn to appreciate what you have and see what is really important."
Hardships like sleeping on the floor, doing a few days' manual labour, and being cut off from "civilisation" paled into insignificance when So saw the villagers' delight as their new bridge took shape. This basic construction, made of local materials but designed by professionals on the project team, would transform their lives too, making it possible for children to go to school, taking hours off a trip to the nearest hospital, and bringing communities closer.
"We did everything by hand in about a week, from putting rocks in metal cages for the piers to laying planks and fixing railings," says So, now a trainee lawyer and a key organiser of a fundraising walkathon planned for November in Hong Kong. "Living there, we saw how precious water is to the villagers, as well as food and meat, and how generous they are with what they have."
The chance to give this kind of eye-opening, transformative experience is precisely what inspired Leonie Ki to help establish the foundation in 2007. Ki, now a member of the group's management council, suspected that too many Hong Kong students had too narrow an outlook, simply not appreciating their good fortune and the obligation that went with that to do more for others.
The foundation is working with 17 universities in Hong Kong, the mainland and the United States to build more bridges, both actual and figurative ones.
Each project in Yunnan, Sichuan and Gansu is identified with the help of the nearest township or county authorities. Professors at partner mainland universities may give their input, and a small project team including engineers and area experts will do preliminary site surveys to assess material needs and come up with a suitable design.
Depending on the scale of the project, up to 40 student-volunteers are then chosen to carry out the construction phase with the local villagers. This also opens the door to other potential projects in the rural communities for education, health care and livelihood issues.
"I liked the bridge idea - in both senses - and saw it as a way for Hong Kong students to learn to count their blessings," Ki says. "It is important for them to do some kind of social service as part of their general education and to realise they are very fortunate."
Sharon Chow, chief executive of Wu Zhi Qiao, says the bridge-building process is a chance to transfer skills to locals and, with sustained contact, can lead to the construction of schools and community centres. "The bridge is a starting point," she says. "But the response is very heartwarming and the experience stays with you forever."
About 600 students have taken part so far, along with volunteer professionals who specialise in safety, engineering, logistics and medicine
Nineteen projects have been completed and three more are under way
Site surveys take due account of villagers' input, river conditions and local culture