The young mentors building bridges

University students shun corporate internships in favour of raising their cultural awareness working with teenagers from ethnic minorities

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 July, 2013, 4:51am

The summer of 2009 was a special time for young banker Kenneth Kan Cham-chung.

Then a second-year business student at the University of Science and Technology, Kan gave up an opportunity to do what most of his classmates did, which was to take an internship with a commercial firm. Instead, he and a few school friends chose to volunteer as mentors to a group of ethnic minority teens as part of a community programme jointly run by the university, the Hong Kong Christian Service and property developer Hysan Development.

The purpose of the programme, called Project Exploration, was to broaden the horizons of both local and ethnic minority students and raise interest among ethnic minorities in pursuing higher education. It also aimed to encourage racial harmony in the community.

Kan said that during his three months on the project, which did not count towards his course grade, he learned a lot about how to be culturally sensitive. He was given the task of mentoring five or six teenagers of Indian and Pakistani origin.

"When I guided the group of ethnic minority teens, I had never previously thought of their religious rules, such as the fact all their food must observe halal practices and their meals should not contain pork, as well as their special days for fasting. I remember I invited them to have siu mai [pork and shrimp steamed dumplings]," he said.

Now 25, Kan says the experience has helped him carry out his banking work serving clients from different backgrounds, especially those from the Middle East. "I am now more aware that I should not make a lunch appointment with them when they are fasting," he said.

Sagar Patnani, 21, was one of the youngsters mentored by Kan four years ago. He also said the experience was beneficial.

"You get exposure, experience university life, exploring new things. I had a good time," said Patnani, who is studying for a bachelor's degree in finance and marketing at Upper Iowa University's Hong Kong campus. He said the experience also spurred his interest in business.

This year, eight students from HKUST are mentoring about 20 students recruited from local schools. The secondary school pupils are required to meet with their mentors regularly at the university's campus during the summer, which allows them to understand university life. One of this year's mentors, Phoebe Ma Tan-lee, 20, is a first-year business school student majoring in marketing and management at HKUST.

"I was very intrigued as to why [the organisers] picked ethnic minority children. I've had very little contact with Hong Kong's ethnic minorities," Ma said. She said she had only met such people through volunteering at church, and that she was struck by the positive attitude towards life shown by her mentees.

She is set to mentor a Form Three student who will begin Form Four after the summer.

"Most of them are not from rich families, and many did not get a good education, but they have a positive outlook on life despite having little," she said. Ma hopes to work with an NGO after she graduates, specifically with ethnic minority children.

The project, which was initiated by Hysan in 2007, began this year's programme in June, when mentors took life-coaching classes before meeting their mentees.

A day camp was held for the mentees this weekend and a "university week" starts today, for which the mentors have planned activities such as lectures, university club events and tours of halls of residence aimed at letting the teenagers experience university life.

After this week, the mentors will meet the teens two or three times a week to provide "life coaching", which includes helping them set achievable goals and undertake life planning. The programme will finish at the end of August.

Fermi Wong Wai-fun, from Unison Hong Kong, a non-governmental organisation that focuses on helping minority groups, said programmes such as this one benefit all involved.

"These activities are much appreciated and they do have a positive impact. Many of the students do get inspired, but ultimately, it's not just inspiration which is needed, but for the system to change," Wong said.

Wong said the percentage of youngsters from ethnic minorities winning university places remains low not because they lack motivation, but because the school system prevents them from doing so.