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Serving the community

From helping disadvantaged students with their homework, to spending time with the elderly and discussing the minimum wage with charity groups, Lingnan University student Darren Kwok Yu-yuen has supplemented his classroom knowledge by reaching out to the community.

"I've been able to critically reflect on what I learn in school and develop an in-depth understanding of the issues," says Kwok, a social science major in his third year, who has taken part in five "service-learning" projects designed to combine academic studies and practical learning experiences.

"Students engage in community services to gain a better understanding of their course material, and also to learn to care and be responsible. It's important that young people are willing to contribute to society by helping others," says Professor Alfred Chan Cheung-ming, chair professor of social gerontology, and director of the office of service-learning at the university. The community service must be related to the academic subject a student is studying, he adds.

Each year, at least 300 Lingnan students take part in about 40 projects in Hong Kong and seven international initiatives, serving groups that include children and youth, ethnic minorities and low-income families. Most local projects last for three months, while overseas programmes vary from eight days to two months. Eight departments at Lingnan have incorporated service-learning into their curricula. More will do so next year.

Extensive training is offered to help students prepare for the programmes, Chan says, which cover soft skills, such as how to lead and work in a team and manage a project, knowledge of social issues in Hong Kong, and specific skills such as handling a wheelchair.

Students will then be assigned to an organisation, most likely a charity group, where they will learn about its background and services, and the project they will be involved in. They receive support from mentors - alumni from previous programmes - while meeting their teachers to update them on their progress, share their observations and discuss how the experience relates to their academic studies. Staff members of the office of service-learning will also visit the organisation to find out about the work the students are doing.

Information provided by the office of service-learning shows that participating students have shown marked improvements in areas such as subject-related knowledge, problem-solving skills and research capability.

"They have also become more concerned about [the community] and more aware of social issues," Chan says.

In the 2009-10 year, Lingnan students contributed 71,500 hours and served at least 4,000 beneficiaries. "If we pay HK$50 per hour to students for the volunteer work, then we have already contributed more than HK$3.5 million to the community," Chan says.

Tam Kwan-mei, a library teacher from S.R.B.C.E.P.S.A Lee Yat Ngok Memorial School in Kwai Chung, says Lingnan's service-learning project, which seeks to motivate the school's students to read and participate in activities using the digital platform, has borne fruit. "Our students are now actively expressing their views while learning to listen to others. The programme gives Lingnan students the chance to instil positive values in the kids," she says.