You may be entering the Stanford bubble for the first time or re-entering the blissful bubble after a short break. Eventually, many Stanford students come to realize that their lives here are being insulated from the real problems of the world. But from time to time, when their restless hearts really begin to beat a bit quicker, some students seek opportunities that allow them to touch a bit of the surrounding world.
Luckily, some of those opportunities exist right here on campus. They use the resources here and seek to help members of the Stanford community break out of the bubble for a time.
One program seeks to bring Stanford students together with university students from all across Asia. Volunteers in Asia (VIA) is an organization with a long history and mission. What began in 1963 as an initiative to educate and aid Chinese refugees in Hong Kong, is today a network of people that work across two continents and ten nations.
According to its website, “VIA is dedicated to increasing understanding between the United States and Asia through public service and programs promoting cross-cultural education.” Today, the mechanisms by which the members of VIA fulfill this vision literally changes from year to year and from program to program within the organization.
Part of the VIA’s uniqueness rests in the fact that volunteers can work in Asia or the States. While the overseas volunteer experiences take place over a course of 2 years, the summer and spring programs here on campus may be more attractive for students who are seeking cross-cultural service locally.
The volunteers on campus work to coordinate four-week programs in which Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Korean students come to explore American culture, health care, and public service. And Stanford student coordinators really do shape the programming during the visiting students’ month-long stay. According to Ben Strong, Stanford Programs Director, the student coordinators decide what specific topics will be covered within each program’s curriculum. For instance, this summer’s Asia-U.S. Service-Learning (AUSL) visiting students engaged in service through health and disability as well as the environment and sustainability.
Before arriving at Stanford, the AUSL participants attended pre-orientation retreats in their home countries, during which they selected research topics surrounding their service initiatives. Here at Stanford, they spent two weeks exploring their topics through lectures given by Stanford faculty and leaders within the field as well as field trips meant to expose them to American culture, English, and service. For instance, two summers ago, participants visited Camp Costanoan, a camp in Cupertino for people with physical or developmental disabilities.
The third week was spent completing an intensive service project in the Bay Area, which was also largely organized by the student coordinators. And the fourth week was one of reflection through final projects and an unwinding retreat to the San Francisco Bay. For the visiting Asian students, their month was filled with interaction with Americans and students from other Asian nations, groups with whom they rarely interact back home. Additionally, they did all of this in a new nation and using a language second to their own. This provided challenges, but also chances for growth among the students, who typically relish the opportunities for challenge.
And it is the Stanford coordinators that have the challenge of planning over 40 events and creating a diverse, coherent month-long plan for a group of foreign students. In holding this responsibility, these students wield significant power and truly have the ability to take ownership of something here at Stanford.
When asked whether there is a type of student VIA seeks as a student volunteer, Strong responded, “They need to show interest in the students that are coming and the experience they will have. It’s a lot to ask, but Stanford is a great place to operate because you find students who have passion and an interest in the issues we’re working on, but not necessarily the experience in that area.” And VIA truly is willing to teach its student coordinators all they need to know about organizing an event such as the AUSL program. It is a process during which the volunteers gain knowledge, organizational and marketing skills, service experience, and camaraderie.
The beauty of VIA is that it is an organization that listens to and actively implements the ideas and feedback of its volunteers. It feels like organic development grown out of a group of passionate individuals who have all invested themselves into the organization and their ability to fulfill its mission.
The camaraderie and personal cross-cultural ties the participants and coordinators build becomes a major source of enjoyment for those involved. In his final reflection letter sent to this summer’s AUSL participants, one student coordinator wrote, “I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to all of you for giving me the chance to work with you. Your enthusiasm, intuitiveness and spirit have truly touched me in a profound way.”