How one Hong Kong student won a coveted Princeton Book Award

Service excellence a major criterion of prize, underscoring the importance universities attach to serving communities

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 July, 2015, 6:29am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 July, 2015, 10:05am

One of my students, Aaron Lit Tsz-ki, is one of the recipients of this year's coveted Princeton Book Award.

Conferred by the Princeton Club of Hong Kong, the award was initiated in 2008. "We recognise that all three pillars of academic excellence, service excellence, and leadership excellence are required to fulfil the Princeton motto: In the nation's service, and in the service of all nations," says Dominic Mario Notario, chair of the book award committee.

This summer thousands of students will undertake "community service" to hone their profiles for college admissions. After all, reports say it ranks fourth among the factors considered for admission with SAT scores, examination results and extracurricular activities being the top three contenders. Its importance in the admission process is placed above reference letters and interviews.

So why do universities set store by service and does it differ from volunteering?

Using survey data from 12 countries Femida Handy, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, examined undergraduate motivations to volunteer, volunteer participation, and country differences. Her findings suggest students motivated by résumé building have a lower intensity of volunteering. And in countries with a positive signalling value of volunteering, student volunteering rates are higher.

The author of Ten Professional Development Benefits of Volunteering (Everything I Learned in Life I Learned Through Volunteering), Mary Merrill, says volunteering is the perfect vehicle to discover and develop a new skill. Because volunteering involves a deliberate choice, volunteers express a sense of achievement that stems from one's desire to extend oneself to others.

Volunteering also improves career options. A survey carried out by TimeBank through Reed Executive showed that among 200 of Britain's leading businesses, 73 per cent of employers would recruit a candidate with volunteering experience over one without. Significantly, 94 per cent of employers believe that volunteering can add to skills and 94 per cent of employees who volunteered to learn new skills had benefited either by getting their first job, improving their salary, or being promoted.

Volunteering brings people from different walks of life together. This not only increases networking opportunities, but the opportunity to learn from the experiences of people who one would never ordinarily meet. Because in the words of John Donne, "no man is an island, entire of itself", volunteering provides an avenue to connect with the community one belongs to and, through service to the community, ultimately give back to society. Thus volunteering and service can paint a picture of an individual to admission officers which cannot be captured by exam and SAT scores - a clearer picture that includes interests, commitment and passion through tangible examples.

More importantly, reports state a notable increase in the percentage of admissions officers who believe it is possible for students to have too many community service hours. Increasingly admissions officers prefer students to be consistently involved with one issue over a variety of causes thus demonstrating a deep commitment to it.

"This year the Princeton book award committee [identified] 34 students from 34 different schools in Hong Kong, representing both local and international schools, [who met selection criteria]," says Notario.

How did Aaron meet the service criteria for the Princeton Book Award?

The recipient of the Ocean Geographic Society Underwater Photography Award for outstanding achievement in 2013, and an avid scuba diver, Aaron is founder of the Marine Life Awareness and Conservation Project that is dedicated to spreading awareness and encouraging conservation in schools, families and neighbourhoods. He and his committee members communicate their message via posters, blogs and leaflets that feature animal fact files, conservation strategies, and news concerning the marine ecosystem. They conduct educational field trips, coastal clean-ups and fundraising via sales of self-designed T-shirts depicting marine life.

Aaron has published a book about marine life featuring his own underwater photography called Watercolour. "I use underwater photography, personal anecdotes, and insight into marine life behaviour to instil respect and inspire appreciation for our oceans. I believe that only with admiration and love come respect and conservation."

All revenue raised by sales of this book is dedicated to charity and sponsoring marine conservation organisations.

Aaron's endeavour truly is in the service of all nations.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International school