During the eight weeks Eliz Wong spent working for a charity in Inner Mongolia last summer, the Chinese University student witnessed first-hand how NGOs empower and support disadvantaged women.
"The group offers local women access to microfinance, giving them the opportunity to exercise their rights and helping them achieve gender equality. With the money they can decide on - or at least discuss with their husbands - what plants to grow and what animals to rear, among other things," says Wong, a sociology student in her third year whose internship was organised as part of the university's I-CARE programme.
One of Wong's tasks was to interview the recipients of microfinance loans, determine how effective the assistance was and find out what other needs there were. "I lived in a village for two weeks and spent a lot of time chatting with the locals, understanding the challenges faced by the rural population in China," she says. Inspired by the experience, Wong has decided to pursue a master's degree with a focus on the development of civil society in Hong Kong, the mainland and Taiwan.
In recent years universities in Hong Kong have been rolling out programmes to promote civic and social engagement to encourage students to help solve problems in society, both locally and abroad. Rather than one-off volunteering events, these initiatives range from summer internships with NGOs and in-depth research projects, to year-long education programmes in primary schools or homes for the elderly. They aim to give students a chance to thoroughly examine an issue in society.
"University students shouldn't just spend time on acquiring [textbook] knowledge or finding a job. They should take on responsibility for our society and nation," says Professor Joseph J.Y. Sung, vice-chancellor of Chinese University and co-chairman of the steering committee of the I-CARE programme that was launched last year.
"We hope to instil in our students a humanistic spirit that emphasises the value of human life, promotes an equal society and cares for others including people with lesser means and disabilities," he adds.
Chinese University students are encouraged to engage in one of several I-CARE activities. They can initiate research projects to identify a social problem, be involved in work related [or] social enterprises, intern with an NGO on the mainland or take part in social services in Hong Kong. A series of lectures are also in place, featuring famous academics, artists and public figures who will share their views and values.
Sung says the programme hasn't been made compulsory because students should be participating out of their own initiative. "It's important that they're doing this because they want to. It takes time to nurture interest, instil values and change [lives]," he says.
Adopting a different model to foster responsibility for society is Lingnan University. Introduced in 2004, their service-learning projects are designed to combine academic studies and practical learning.
Underpinning the model is the belief that students who are engaged in community services gain a better understanding of their course material and learn to care and be responsible.
From motivating young children to read, helping NGOs raise funds more effectively and researching topics of human rights and disability for an advocacy group, the service-learning programmes vary greatly and involve students from different academic disciplines.
Students receive training prior to the programmes, which covers areas like how to lead and work in a team and how to communicate with young people with mental disabilities. Students are then assigned to an organisation (often a charity) or design a project to achieve a particular goal.
During the 2011-2012 school year, students contributed 24,420 hours and served at least 8,000 beneficiaries.
"A few years ago we initiated a programme to help prevent mobile phone scams in the community. This involved our students who studied crime and delinquency working with the police force," says Carol Ma, assistant director in the office of service-learning at the university. Students applied their classroom knowledge to identify why people commit these crimes and then came up with ways to prevent it happening to others, especially elderly people. They also visited elderly homes and organised drawing contests in kindergartens to raise awareness. As a result of a year's efforts, Ma says there was a decrease in mobile phone scams in the community.
Students met their teachers regularly and presented their conclusions when the programme ended. Like other service-learning projects, they filled in a questionnaire before and after the programme to assess whether they showed improvement in areas such as social competence and civic orientation, as well as in their capacity to communicate, organise, solve problems and carry out research. Impact studies and interviews are also carried out with existing students and graduates.
Lingnan University is conducting reviews of service learning before making it mandatory for all undergraduates from 2014-2015 onwards. "Higher education institutions have [a] responsibility to promote social and civic awareness and engagement among students. Through engaging in the community, students are often able to find the direction of their life," says Ma.
Taking part in a service-learning project helped graduate Carman Chak find her vocation. "I was involved in a programme teaching a group of elderly [people] how to read and write. In class we learnt that many retirees and old people have unfulfilled dreams and needs. Many elderly participants of our project were illiterate and they wanted to be able to read and write. We also chatted with them a great deal. Often all they wanted was to be listened to," says Chak, who enrolled in a master's programme in social work after graduating in 2009.
Now a social worker, Chak says the skills that she learned during the project, such as managing group dynamics, are invaluable to her work. "The experience confirmed my belief that there are things in life worth pursuing, other than just making money. I'm happy I made the choice I did," she adds.