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V for victory - and volunteer

LIU Shilin will be graduating next month with a sociology degree from Fudan University. While the 22-year-old basks in the honor of fulfilling a childhood dream, she is also gratified that she can better understand society and its people by volunteering as an English teacher for young children.

Liu, who hails from Beijing, believes that education is a productive tool bringing about positive changes in many lives. By serving as an English teacher, she helps mold a better future for the younger generation.

"It is a refreshing experience to be with the children and teach them. I am the kind of person who wants to have an impact on other people's lives. This is one way of doing that," she says.

Liu teaches English in the Sunflower program of the Grassroots Community Association, an organization formed in 2000 by law students from Fudan University.

The organization runs five projects under the Sunflower program, according to program manager Lin Yi. Apart from English, there are music, reading, handicraft and science classes during weekends.

A volunteer himself, 36-year-old Lin says he appreciates the vibrant spirit of young volunteers who take time out of their busy schedules to assist in educating children.

Under the Sunflower program, the children are divided into two English classes - introductory level (English alphabet and basic vocabulary) and middle level (basic English phrases, conversation and vocabulary). Classes are held every Sunday at a community center in Baoshan District.

"In the next years, we hope to make our programs stable and more professional so that we can better assist in educating the children," says Lin, who is pursuing an MBA degree. He says volunteering gives him first-hand experience in organizational issues and knowledge that will aid him in setting up his own business.

Every Sunday, Luo Zhengbi takes her daughter, Gao Yuan, to the community center. Classes run from 10am to noon, with a 10-minute break between class periods.

While her child sits in front to learn the English alphabet, Luo quietly takes notes at the back of the classroom. She pronounces the alphabet to herself, almost in a whisper. After every class, she doesn't hesitate to ask the teacher for clarification.

"My child is in kindergarten and the school does not teach English so I brought her here. I have never studied English before so I am learning English with my child," says Luo, 37, who adds that the teachers are very good and responsive to questions.

But learning is not a one-way process. While the children learn from the teachers, the teachers too learn from the children.

This is the realization of 22-year-old Hester Luu, president of Fudan Foreign Students Volunteering Association (FFSVA). Luu is from Vietnam and came to Fudan in 2009 to study finance.

Learn with kids

"When you are teaching, you discover that the children are so talented. The kids taught me how to draw. They even draw better than I and they enjoyed every moment I spent with them," she says.

FFSVA was founded in July 2007 by two exchange students from Germany. It first taught English at Qidi school for migrants' children, starting out with only 20 volunteers. As of September 2009, the organization has more than 100 student-members from more than 25 countries and regions.

While teaching English is one of the primary programs of FFSVA, Luu says it has broadened its volunteer network to help children and adults with disabilities, working in welfare houses and special institutions.

Liu from Fudan University says volunteerism is slowly gaining wide support in Shanghai and throughout China, with the growing presence of volunteer groups and foreign students.

"It is good to have foreign volunteers because they understand (the culture of) volunteerism," says Liu. "The opportunity to get involved in volunteer work is perhaps bigger in other countries. In China, when you talk about volunteering, it usually refers to big events and normally you get paid (for example, the World Expo)," she says.

But trends are changing.

More and more Chinese realize that beside other leisure activities, "there is another way of relaxing, which can also do good for you and others," she says.

Last September Liu asked her Fudan student friend Kevin Yang, vice president of FFSVA, to connect her with a volunteer group. He put her in touch with Liu Weiwei, who introduced her to the Sunflower program and inspired her to do more.

She came to realize that everyone has a different mission in life. "Different people will definitely have different approaches to realize their dreams but this doesn't mean that we have different goals (we all want to help others). We are all for one goal but we are achieving it in different ways."

Shanghai-born, Austrian citizen Weng Ting had no volunteer experience prior to becoming an English teacher. But she decided to go out and volunteer since she loves working with kids.

Weng is studying at the University of Economics and Business in Vienna, Austria. Since her curriculum requires one semester abroad, she chose to study at Fudan University. Weng's parents, both from Shanghai, migrated to Austria.

"I was tutoring three kids before I came to Shanghai. I missed it. It is a great feeling to know that one can help other people in your own, little ways," says Weng. And the 24-year-old likes learning about people with backgrounds different from her own.

Managing time poses a big challenge for many volunteers. But Luu, president of the Fudan foreign volunteers, says it's not hard to devote one or two hours of a weekly schedule to volunteer work - if one is committed.

"Many people want to help others but they are afraid they won't have time to sustain volunteer work," says Luu. "It is hard to take the first step, but once you get used to it, it will be easy. It is not time-consuming; you don't need to spend a lot of money. You just have to commit."

To these young people, volunteering is not an additional burden on top of their busy schedules and serious responsibilities. To them, volunteering is a refreshing way to keep in touch with reality and connect with the most lovable part of society - the children.


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