ISLE (International Service Learning Elective): A Reflection

by Edmund Zhang Jia Xi (19S06S)
ISLE 2018 Team B Leader

In this article, ISLE (International Service Learning Elective) team leader Edmund Zhang reflects on his experience planning and raising funds for a trip to a school in Batam.

It doesn't matter how comprehensive the introduction sessions and pamphlets are, or how vivid our seniors' personal anecdotes were; nothing really prepares you for the rigour and intensity of the hectic nine months ahead.

Joining ISLE

ISLE is much more than just going to school two hours earlier than everyone else every Monday and a 10-day long trip to Batam. The journey begins with an overnight bonding camp, where you get a glimpse of how vital teamwork and adaptability are in completing the tasks delegated. It’s also when you start to form new friendships and learn about how others work under different conditions.

Recce Trip

Then you start planning for the recce, a 3D2N trip to the school you’ll spend the year-end trip at. During the recce, you’ll begin to understand why they call ISLE a 'student-led' programme. Do not expect spoon-feeding from teachers, being told what to do and when to do it by. Expect being clueless and working together with your teammates to figure out the exact dimensions of specific structures, figuring out which aspects of the school should be improved or refurbished, and going down to the hardware store to order and make an inventory of what’s needed. It’s in this recce where the different personalities and working styles of the team members start to gel and you’ll begin to see everything coming together. You’ll learn to stop relying on the guidance of your teachers, and step up to solve problems together.

Interviewing the school caretaker during ISLE Week

ISLE week is an opportunity to raise funds for the work you plan to carry out. This is when the entrepreneurial ones step up to the plate. Our team learnt the importance of the delegation of roles and the severity of miscommunication; after all, it’s going to be 15 of you trying to reach out to a student population of approximately 2400. This year, through selling merchandise and running a car wash, the two ISLE teams were able to raise over $2000 in one week, which was used to purchase items such as paint, cement, bricks, rollers, etc.

You take a short break to tackle the ever-dreaded Promotional Examination, and then it’s back to the flurry of meetings and preparation for the year-end trip.

Year-End Trip

Service learning is more than just volunteerism. Everyone has a different interpretation and take on it, as you’ll soon appreciate during the nightly reflection sessions. During these sessions, your understanding and opinions on issues ranging from cultural differences between Batam and Singapore to what it really means to be 'serving' and 'helping' will be thoroughly and comprehensively debated on, and you’ll come out of every session with a new outlook. Lots of controversial topics will be covered, and through this we realised that not everything was black and white, and we had to take the perspectives of different stakeholders into account.

Nightly reflection session

What would probably stick with you the most would be your interactions with the students in Batam. You’ll be planning and conducting lessons for them, and the language barrier only makes the task even more challenging. For those few hours, you’ll experience what’s needed to conduct a class, along with its challenges and joys. We engaged the students in various activities centred around colours, plant anatomy and art and crafts. It wasn’t easy. We experienced a hiccup on Day 1 - a change in the number of classes and students we could take on, and that was the first test of our adaptability. This meant a change in our logistics and scheduling, and it was the first learning point for all of us; no matter how prepared you are, there will always be unexpected challenges that you’d have to be ready to tackle.

Art & Craft lesson

In between classes, you'd get a chance to play and interact with all the students on their breaks. This takes some getting used to. They’ll treat you like celebrities and crowd around you, and you may be a little intimidated and be slightly uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I implore you to step out of your comfort zone and reach out to them. That’s when you really connect with them and understand their lifestyles and school culture. Using your minimal grasp of Bahasa to try to understand them, you’ll soon realise it’s not all that difficult to interact with them. It’d be a little bit of a culture shock, and the empathy and feeling of being welcomed will be at a magnitude and scale at which you’ve never experienced before.

The construction you’ll be carrying out will be physically taxing, but it really puts into perspective what it takes to build and maintain school grounds. I can guarantee that every student that comes out of ISLE will appreciate and treat their own campus and environment very differently. The students of the school will voluntarily step up and help out, as they see it as their responsibility to take care of the school grounds too, and it’s an attitude that we should all aspire to have.

Flowerbed construction

Before you know it, the trip will come to an end and you’ll be shocked to see the amount of work you’ve completed. The culmination of the efforts of 15 hardworking, like-minded individuals will exceed any expectations that you had before the trip. In just those few days, we were able to paint exterior walls, classrooms, stairwells, a volleyball court, build a flowerbed from scratch and paint existing ones, all while carrying out lessons and interacting with the students.

Volleyball Court

One of the finished flowerbeds

We learnt so much more than we asked for. We grasped with how to work with different personalities and working styles under tight deadlines (think PW on steroids); we appreciated how it was like to serve with your heart and truly care about what you’re doing and who you’re doing it for; and we discovered the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone. We were more confident with ourselves and became more reflective, having learnt the importance of thinking about both the unintended and intended consequences of our actions.

Final Thoughts

In ISLE, you’ll find a community of kind-hearted, enthusiastic individuals with the desire to help and reach out. You’ll learn more about yourself, such as your own leadership and working styles and how quickly you adapt to new scenarios and environments. Stepping up and taking the initiative will soon become second nature to you, as you’ve now experienced what it’s like to feel so invested and accountable for the cause and your team members.

The journey, albeit draining at times, has been a fulfilling and memorable one, and I think it’s safe to say that every single student of ISLE is extremely grateful to have been part of this programme, and has been inspired to do more to serve the community, both locally and internationally.

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