18 January 2019: Yale-NUS students sow the seeds that help others reach the stars

By Daryl Yang

Tuition classes are the modern go-to solution for students who need more help with their studies, but sometimes, the issue is more fundamental than that. To address this, a group of Yale-NUS students take time out every Friday night to run a literacy programme for primary school students from lower-income families in the Buona Vista area.

Known as BV Stars, the group is part of a larger team of volunteers of about 15 tutors.

Joshua Tay (Class of 2021) coordinates this initiative, which started as a tutoring programme for students. Over time, the volunteers realised that providing support for their perceived needs in the various subjects was not producing the desired results.

“It seemed that there was a greater underlying problem — literacy rates,” he said.

“Because the students lacked the basic literacy foundation, our attempts at tutoring them in Mathematics and Science often fell short, for they were unable to understand the questions to begin with.”

Hoping to tackle the problem from its roots, Joshua sought the support from ReadAble, a group that provides literacy programmes for children from underprivileged backgrounds.

“They very generously extended resources and training to our programme and we now run a similar literacy programme for about 18 students,” he said.

Student tutors from BV Stars. Image by Ashbel Chionh. 

Other students involved in the programme include Nyang Bing Pei, Peh Yi Lin and Atharva Brahmecha (both from the Class of 2021).

Beyond the weekly classes, these volunteers make it a point to foster closer interactions with the students and their families. Some visit them several times a week to provide additional tuition, while others would join their families for meals or invite the students for activities like football.

“It is important to go the extra mile to be truly invested in the students’ lives and have their families be a part of our lives before we can even think about being part of theirs as figures of support,” Bing Pei said, reflecting on how building relationships with the students she works with is a critical aspect of her work.

Given the positive feedback that they have received and the improvements they have seen from the students, Joshua and his team are planning to expand the programme to offer pre-school literacy classes and secondary school academic support.

Joshua and Bing Pei’s commitment to community service reflects the ethic of service at Yale-NUS College, where students are encouraged and supported to give back to society. It was also an avenue for them to reflect on their place and roles within a larger community.

For Joshua, the experience opened his eyes to the plight of the less privileged. He recalled chancing upon a pair of siblings who came from a family that was facing some issues with access to education during his visits in the neighbourhood. This marked the start of a two-year long ongoing relationship with the family that opened up another side of Singapore to him.

“Their situation has always stayed with me – both as a monument of my privilege, and a motivation to serve them. While my journey with their family has been far from smooth sailing, I’m thankful that we have seen marked improvements, both intangible and tangible, in their lives over the past two years.”

These experiences have also helped him to grow as a person.

“I’ve learnt how to better relate to people. Sometimes, you just have to learn it through experience and engaging with people who are radically different. My volunteering has taken me on a long (and ongoing) learning process to treat people better,” he said.

Apart from self-initiated projects like BV Stars, the Yale-NUS Centre for International & Professional Experience (CIPE) also provides opportunities for students to participate in social impact work through internships and funding.

For instance, Sim Yi Shien (Class of 2019) found out about an internship with Skillseed, a social enterprise that designs global experiential service learning journeys for social impact, through CIPE.

She joined the organisation as a Project Management & Research Intern, where she assisted in consolidating and analysing qualitative data from Skillseed’s programmes.

In addition, she helped to manage a new initiative, Skillseed x SPD Youth Development Programme, with Skillseed’s founders. The programme brings together young people both with and without disabilities for training and mentorship, to forge a more inclusive Singapore.

Yi Shien with Toh Bao En of Red Dot Bhangra (left), and Hema Kalamogan from Skillseed (right). Image provided by Sim Yi Shien. 

“Towards the end, I had the opportunity to help design the learning journeys that Skillseed was organising in Singapore for a group of Hong Kong high school students. It was very fun and I got to contribute to every step of the planning process, from doing research, to conducting recces, to even facilitating and leading some parts of the learning journey,” Yi Shien said.

Another student, Fu Xiyao (Class of 2021) also interned with Skillseed as the China Hand Intern, where she was responsible for conducting research on and outreach to high schools in China.

Inspired by her own Yale-NUS travel experiences, she was excited by how Skillseed creates social impact through crafting experiential learning courses for young people.

“From my Residential College Experience (RCX) trip to Surabaya where we visited the Sidoarjo mudflow site, to Week 7 in South Africa where we investigated the effect of apartheid, my first year at Yale-NUS allowed me to experience first-hand what constitutes a good experiential learning experience,” she said. Week 7 is a flagship programme where first-year students participate in experiential projects organised by Yale-NUS faculty on their fields of expertise outside the classroom.

For Yi Shien, her internship experience at Skillseed also inspired her capstone topic on dumpster-diving, which involves salvaging waste that could be reused. As an Anthropology major, she found that a wide range of interesting observations to unpack from this recent phenomenon.

“During the first week of my internship, Skillseed had just launched the inaugural edition of The Adventurous Fellowship, a programme where young people could explore the themes of inequality, integration and the environment through three different experiential camps. I had the opportunity to participate in the Environment camp, and that’s where I dumpster-dived for the first time,” she said.

Apart from contributing to social impact work, the students also found themselves benefitting from the experience.

“Bonded by the common vision of impactful, experiential education, people at Skillseed constantly challenge themselves to do the best job and accomplish the vision by working together. Two months of internship was fleeting, but the deep sense of belonging to Skillseed family will stick with me for a long time,” Xiyao said.