Written by: Cheah Guan Ying
Millennials are constantly searching for the next place to explore during their holidays. Common destinations include Thailand, Batam, Cambodia, Nepal, and The Philippines, places filled with life and adventure. Yet, not everyone is visiting with the intention of shopping and relaxing; instead, they are there working to fulfill a larger purpose – volunteering their service for others. These include students on the Overseas Community Involvement Programme (OCIP). In Nanyang Technological University (NTU), an abundance of opportunity exists for students to join these overseas volunteering trips. Various halls, clubs, and faculties each offer a unique version of the programme, infusing their own culture and spirit into the journey. No two trips are same, even if one has had prior experience: there is always something new to learn.
I am fortunate to have had one such volunteering experience. From 11-23 May 2019, I was part of a 22-member OCIP team who set off to Pangasinan, a province in The Philippines. The trip was organised under my hall, Binjai Hall – one of three halls in the North Hill cluster, along with Banyan and Tanjong Hall. As Binjai was recently established, it is the first time that it has undertaken such an event for its residents. Nonetheless, that did not deter us, and we were determined to make the best out of this chance.
During the two-week trip, I did construction work at the YMCA building in Pangasinan and at a local school on the island of Pugaro, conducted after-school programmes for children there, and lived with the local families as part of a homestay arrangement.
Construction work was one of the toughest activities for me. We were tasked to clear the rooftop of all metal debris and rubbish, hose down the roof and sweep off all dust, and finally make cement for the ground. Initially, I thought that I would be able to do it with ease as I had prior experience in that area. How I was mistaken!
It was a potent combination of laborious work, hot weather, and dusty air. I had to constantly hydrate myself, and I would be exhausted in less than an hour. I remember how much I looked forward to cold showers at the end of the day, and would pass out the instant my head hit the pillow. I take comfort in the fact that that was an indicator of a long, productive day.
Of highlight was the construction of an aquaponics system for the local school in Pugaro. The school shared with us that they were having a tough time growing crops in their school garden, and requested for help. Binjai Hall was a partner in this project, along with other halls from NTU and a volunteer civil engineer with aquaponics expertise from Singapore.
My fellow teammate, Clifton Lin, who was part of the aquaponics team from Binjai Hall, sourced for materials and ensured that all logistics were prepared for future batches of student volunteers who would continue the project. As the first team in Pangasinan, we took the mantle of kickstarting the entire initiative, meaning we had to design and lay out the groundwork for the system to be constructed.
Upon completion of the system, the school will be able to grow crops and fishes, whereupon they can sell them as a form of income to fund local education for their children. If this system is able to work for the school, it would encourage other communities to adopt the system as a solution to infertile soil, and ultimately as a means to better crops.
As we visited during the island’s school holidays, school facilities including open spaces and classrooms were available for us to conduct the after-school programme we had planned. It warmed my heart to see the passion and initiative the local children expressed toward learning during English classes, reminding me of how we take readily accessible resources for granted back at home.
The People Behind-the-Scenes
I witnessed the hospitality and dedication of the Filipino teachers and our guide team from YMCA Pangasinan. They were genuine and sincere in helping us with the language barrier, and extended a helping hand whenever we faced problems. Undeniably, they were the key supporting figures that made our OCIP a smooth-sailing one.
Leading the OCIP team were Collin Lim and Rebekah Lim, chairperson and vice-chairperson of the Binjai OCIP 2019. Together, they coordinated with multiple organizations and groups of people for the trip to come to fruition.
The trip was not always smooth-sailing. For example, the programme had to be consistently revised to accommodate unexpected circumstances. Additionally, a few of us had difficulty adjusting to the weather and climate. Communication barriers were also one challenge that the team faced. Despite these obstacles, everyone was crystal clear on our mission and vision for the trip: offering whatever we had to the locals, and creating a valuable memory to improve ourselves. It was immensely fulfilling for me, and I’m sure that my teammates share the same sentiments.
The trip was made only possible with dedicated leaders and motivated team members. Looking back, I’m more than grateful to have signed up for OCIP as I was able to interact more with my fellow residents and also forge new friendships. Labouring under the scorching sun and intense humidity is not something I did in my everyday life, and I have a newfound appreciation for the comforts I have – access to education, clean water through our drinking taps, and a convenient transport system. Cliché, but true.
Moreover, I was also able to gain an appreciation of the Filipino culture and, for a lack of a better word, how awesome the people there are.
The Flight Back Home
On the plane back to Singapore, I realised this trip might have helped me more than it had helped my new Filipino friends. I developed new skills, experiences, and memories; yet, I can never be truly certain how much of an impact I have made in Pangasinan, and how long it will last after we have left. I won’t overstate its significance, but by engaging in this project, we have at least contributed towards a sustainable effort that should benefit the community in the long run.
What I am certain of, however, is that the OCIP has changed me permanently. Frankly, I initially joined because of my friends, and also because I felt that it would be useful for my career prospects. Yet these considerations faded away during the trip, and what I could do for the community became more important to me than having “OCIP” written on a piece of paper.
It might be quite hypocritical of me to say the above, considering that I am pursuing a degree and eventually a job. But now I believe that not everything we do has to be for the sole purpose of improving our chances of employment, or so that others will perceive us in some way. It is ultimately the things we do without expecting reciprocity that define us.
If you are thinking of embarking on an OCIP, I highly encourage you to do so! I am sure it will be a fun-filled experience and a life-changing journey for you, just like how mine has been.
Images credit: Binjai OCIP 2019 PNP Team