Launched in 2009 as a way for students to effectively donate time and effort to give back to society while raising civic awareness, the program's enthusiastic volunteer leaders are key to its success.
These leaders include Sandy Ka-yan Leung. Sandy, a 2017 BBA graduate, first joined HKUST Connect on impulse in 2013 after she joined a trip to Jiangxi to offer support to 'left-behind' children in rural China, whose parents had moved to the city to seek work.
"Society has argued about the meaning of this kind of service trip," muses Sandy. "It is understandable that children in rural areas may feel upset when visiting volunteers have to leave after a few days. However, when I visited Jiangxi on a second service trip a few months later, I realized how our initial visit had made a positive impact on the students' lives – they greeted us so enthusiastically, and remembered our names and the topics we had taught them. The experience confirmed to me the value of community service and marked the start of my volunteering journey."
The following year, Sandy co-founded 'Take A Step Further', a platform that works to raise social awareness about Jiangxi's left-behind children through a series of exhibitions and seminars, as well as raising funds to buy daily necessities, books, recreational and sports equipment for the children. The initiative, which is still ongoing after three years, saw Sandy invite the founder of a local partner social enterprise to give a seminar at HKUST on organic farming as a social enterprise, as well helping students and staff coming together to knit scarves to send to the children. "I'm amazed by the synergy volunteering can generate," Sandy says. "I'm glad that I could contribute to the platform and bring a continuous impact to the community."
The experience Sandy gained from her trips in year 1 impacted her decision to become a Connect Ambassador for Community Engagement (Connect ACE) in year 2. Connect ACE is a training program offered by HKUST Connect that offers various workshops that help students to discover their strengths, equipping them with the project design skills needed to make an impact in their own community. For example, as part of the service organized by Connect ACE, Sandy and her fellow classmates worked together to put on four sessions for residents in a private nursing home for the aged. And in year 3, Sandy worked as Student Civic Fellow at the HKUST Connect office which allowed Sandy to lead service projects in and off campus and to understand the behind-the-scenes works of a service program. Over time, Sandy's role as a participant evolved, and she began to learn how to lead service projects, using the experiences gleaned from the training workshops offered by Connect ACE.
By now, firmly entrenched in the university's promotion of volunteerism, and committed to continuing her volunteerism, the next stage for Sandy was to join the standing committee of the HKUST Connect Service Leaders Network 2016-17. The network is a student-driven platform that aims to help student service leaders continue their involvement with community engagement through a range of events, such as exchange tours and social gatherings. This is when Sandy took the initiative to launch a study tour to Singapore with other Connect Service Leaders, and began discussions over future collaboration between volunteers in the two cities.
The HKUST Connect programs undoubtedly provided Sandy with the ability to link the academic side of university with the volunteering projects she was seeking to undertake, while helping to equip her with vital vocational skills such as public speaking, leadership and risk management. The ability of volunteering to empower people is a key facet that Sandy has taken away from the programs. She recalls how she witnessed students from different faculties working together, contributing their own knowledge and strengths to get service projects off the ground and ensure their success. The definition of useful skill is broad, and can include everything from first aid skills to IT expertise, right through to the ability to crack an engaging joke during a presentation.
In 2017 summer, Sandy graduated in management and information systems with a minor in social science. After making it through a rigorous and highly selective screening process, Sandy was one of 20 Hong Kong applicants chosen to work with the United Nations Volunteer Program. Sandy worked at a peacebuilding fund project in Colombo, Sri Lanka and organized a symposium in the north of the country to facilitate cooperation between civil society, the private sector and government.
After completing the United Nations Volunteer Program and return to Hong Kong in January 2018, Sandy looks forward to helping "bring positive impact to the region through exchanges of my experiences and ideas". While her path may not yet be set, Sandy's experience to provide vital assistance to those in need will set her, and those around her, in very good stead for the future. As she explains of her inspiration from Gandhi's famous quote: "I believe our society could become a better one when we are willing to be the change we would like to see in the world."