Towards transforming students into active citizens …

It is week 12 of the semester.

The food bank volunteering work seems like a distant affair now. As I reflected upon the four semesters of partnering with Food Bank, I am always amazed by how this collaboration opportunity materialized.

I remembered when I was working on the design of my “Hard to Secure Easy to Waste – Singapore’s Food Story” course in Dec 2016. I was searching the internet looking for food waste activists that I can interact with so that I can learn more about the current status of food waste problems in Singapore.

Several people came up and one of them was Dr Joanna Colema from NUS Environmental Studies. I remembered my first meeting with her at the Yusoff Isak Starbucks. We had an intriguing conversation about her background as an environmentalist in Canada and her journey to Singapore as an academic and her interesting course design on Urban Ecology to motivate her students to adopt sustainability practices within Singapore. She was a really cool lady with a deep passion for sustainability. I recalled feeling really inspired by her to want to also do something of equal standing with my course.

Her course blog LSM4265 was a treasure chest of ideas suggested by many enthusiastic students. Through her, I met Gracie online (a year 4 environmental studies student). She introduced me to Eugene Tay (Founder of Zerowastesg.com). From Eugene Tay, I got to know about FoodBank and Nichol (Co-founder of FoodBank). Intuitively, I thought how wonderful it would be to let my students have a chance to experience what it is like to volunteer and to play a part in serving the community through FoodBank. Driven by this calling, I reached out to Nichol via a ‘cold-call’ email. It never came across to me that may be such ‘cold-call’ email would be abrupt and likely to face with rejections. All I know is when I believe, I should act. In many of my past incidents, I knew that whenever I reach out into the unknown with conviction, a path will reveal itself to me. And truth be told, Nichol replied and agreed to meet to find out more about the course that I am designing.

I remembered the fateful day when I took a bus to travel to Nichol’s company. It was a reasonably long ride and I admitted that I got lost when I was moving around the enormous warehouses at Tanjong Pager Distribution Centre. But thankfully I managed to find it. Meeting Nichol is such a privilege and honour. I have never seen anyone in my life who has such a high level of commitments and passions to serve the less fortunate. Despite the personal hardships that she was struggling with, it never stopped her from wanting to serve. Her passion and devotion to quality work in serving the community are special and rare. Needless to say, I am inspired deeply by her. She agreed to explore ways to give my students’ opportunity to volunteer for FoodBank.

I invited Eugene as my first guest speaker to my course when it first ran in AY16/17 semester 2. In the subsequent semester, I invited Nichol. This semester, I invited Nicholas (co-Founder of FoodBank). All three of them are role models of what it is like to be an active citizen. Passionate and dedicated to high-quality volunteering works to serve society. I am really blessed and fortunate to have met them.

However, despite finding so many role models of active citizens, I am not contented. I feel that in the world I should be able to find a diversity of activists out there. I want my students to become aware of the various ways to become active citizens through these role models. For me, Eugene is the techie. He started a comprehensive website and worked with volunteers to disseminate information and news and give talks to create awareness of the issues. Nichol is a businesswoman. She used her business acumen and apply it into setting a charity of redistributing non-perishable food to the needy. I think there must be more.

I continue with my search. In the process, I found Rob Greenfield from the USA and contacted him to consider having a Skype with my students. Unfortunately, the time zone has made it impossible for this to happen.

I found Selina Juul from Denmark who was made famous by a BBC documentary who claimed that she was one of the reasons why the food waste in Denmark has dropped significantly. I wrote her an email but she was too busy to be able to meet with my students online. It was really disappointing. Cos’ I think interacting with these food activists would have been really enriching for my students. But I didn’t give up.

In 2018, I chanced upon a Channel New Asia documentary about a freegan called Daniel Tay (who took a group of Yale-NUS students on a dumpster diving trip in little India). I knew right immediately that this is a role model in the local context that I have a good chance of inviting to interact with my students. I wrote to the Lecturer who coordinated the trip and asked for Daniel’s contact. That is how I found Daniel and brought him into my class twice. His sharing with the students has always been insightful. His passion to reduce waste across the system is beyond words can describe. Today, he has dedicated almost all his waking hours to find ways to combat food waste. I took a lot of inspirations from people like Daniel.

One of the most rewarding experiences I have during my search to find the role model of active citizens is the opportunity to interact and learn from them. As a College that has a mission to make every single student active citizens, meeting a real active citizen is one of the most effective ways to learn how to become one. There are many fruitful outcomes from these interactions over the years. For example, one of the key highlights of letting my students interact with these role models was two of my students decided to intern for FoodBank for the whole duration of the Dec holiday after listening to the inspiring sharing by Nichol. I thought that is a really big deal. It is really heartwarming to see that my hard works have paid off.

I remain convinced this approach to let my students meet role models has the best chance of transforming them to become active citizens one day. Hopefully sooner than later. And I will continue my relentless search for such role models and go out of my ways to get them into my course to interact with my students.

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