From Local to Global: How Volunteering in the UK has enriched my life

Written by Khoa Nguyen

In Vietnam where I’m from, there is a popular proverb, which can be loosely translated as:

If you adore the kids, they’ll pay your house a visit; if you respect the elderly, they’ll leave you longevity.”

This certainly holds some truth as you will find life much more meaningful and inspiring if you spend some quality time with children and seniors on a frequent basis. This is thanks to either the children’s innocence, coupled with great curiosity that could only be witnessed in the very early years of life or the elderly’s wisdom, shared through stories of a time when you weren’t even born and always wondered. I used to take part in an exchange semester in the U.S. where I was involved in a volunteer program at a nursing home for older people. That experience has given me perspective, helping me to see the world in a much more positive light. This time in the UK, I have had the good fortune to participate in an educational volunteer initiative named Students into Schools – Go Global, that centered around children’s multicultural development, for nearly 6 months before COVID 19 took over. Volunteering with children here is far different than what I did back home – where the work was mainly focusing on illiteracy eradication. As the UK itself is a country of rich diversity, cross-cultural understanding becomes an important concept for children. It is through the lens of that experience, despite a shorter engagement than expected, that I managed to take away some key lessons, and here goes my story…

Before we started, …

I was teamed up with two Chinese students – one studying in education and one studying in psychology alongside a master’s student from Korea who has years of teaching experience. I was the only business student in the group. We were required to work on lesson plans in the first semester before going into a local school in the second term. In response to my teammates’ questions on what drove me to get involved in something like this despite the rigorous nature of my business course, I simply let them know how much I loved working with children and my belief that early education can bring about a better place for everybody. I came to the UK not only to gain new knowledge in the profession that I am pursuing, but to immerse myself fully in the different facets of this diverse and important country. We attended volunteer training back in November 2019 where we got to learn about each other’s motivations and set about meshing as a team. We all agreed that this would be a priceless opportunity to challenge ourselves and tried to design a series of interactive lesson plans to see how far we could go with our mission to promote cross-cultural understanding. Not only would we be able to help increase the children’s multicultural awareness and sensitivity, we could also encourage them to embrace the diverse community they are living in and appreciate the benefits of becoming truly global citizens. In this way, future generations can join hands in ensuring a harmonious society by combating cultural problems such as racism – which can be seen to emerge partly from a lack of exposure to people from cultures other than our own.

After a succession of weekly meetings throughout the first semester, we came up with the topics and decided how to demonstrate them in the most engaging ways, including: Festivals, Arts, Languages, Costumes and Cuisines. We would start with a big picture of the global view on the specified topic, and then dig deeper to introduce our own cultures and alternate our presentations with engaging group tasks to help the students remember. Our expectation didn’t lie in the amount of information they could retain after each session, but we were hoping that they could walk away feeling positive about the richness of the cultures we wanted to present.

Lesson 1: Festivals – the children were reserved when they saw us

Starting off the program by introducing ourselves and walking them through what we planned on delivering, the children looked a bit apprehensive, yet, intrigued. We could tell that having a group of Asian senior students to come to the class to share with them what they have hardly heard before – could be something worth looking forward to. We explained what the role of festivals in human societies in general and gave them some great examples about how people in China, Vietnam and Korea celebrate some of their biggest festivals throughout the year. We taught the children the meaning of a red envelope containing lucky money that represents good luck on the occasion of new year and instructed them how to make one themselves. Looking at how the children were so involved and how they thought of the kindest words to write on their envelopes, we felt heartened – this was something we had always wanted to see and it meant that we were on the right track.

Lesson 2: Arts – the children smiled and waved when they saw us

Teaching the children about this topic was a perfect way for me to reflect on what I knew about my own country’s arts and how I wanted my national heritage to be seen in the eyes of international citizens. Besides learning from my teammates’ presentations about their cultural arts, I also got to comprehend their unique ways of delivering content shaped by their own cultural perspective. With a wide range of matters across borders such as opera, music, modern art, and so on, we captured the children’s attention and answered many simple, yet insightful questions. We had devised a quiz to evaluate how much they could remember in groups and it was surprising to see the majority of the class got the majority of questions right. The children started asking more and more questions, and we couldn’t be happier about their active participation. They became more engaged and kept telling us how much they looked forward to other upcoming sessions.

Lesson 3: Languages – the children were ecstatic and excited when they saw us

This was probably the most anticipating session of all when we let them know whilst their mother tongue – English – is among the most popular spoken languages worldwide, there are over 7,000 other languages present to shape the diversity we are in. It’s amazing to see how knowledgeable the children were in answering our warm-up questions. The students were fascinated to see how languages can be so complex and vary from one country to another and how just a simple tone placed on a certain character could make the words carry such different meanings (Do you know with just letters m and a, placed with 6 different tones can create 6 completely different words in Vietnamese?). It is through the languages that we let them know how our cultures and behaviors are shaped. We included catchy and popular songs to help them memorise basic greetings. At the end of the session, there were also a few students coming up to me and asked in-depth questions like why they saw their Asian friends speak or convey their ideas in a certain way, showing their curiosity in grasping a better understanding of the outside world.

It’s a shame that our journey was suddenly disrupted as schools were forced to close in order to protect students’ safety in the context of COVID 19. We didn’t get to say goodbyes to the students and we could feel they will have missed the lessons, too. It was their positive energy and eager thirst for learning that inspired us to go the extra mile and do everything we could to help them earn the competitive edge for their bright future and awake the global citizen in each of them.

In this case, I am certainly not a giver, but rather a receiver, because the students let me know there is such a strong hope for a bright future where people from all walks of lives, regardless of their skin colour or cultural background, can embrace individual differences and love each other. Looking at their eager faces, listening to their intriguing questions and observing their sincere approach to learning, I have a belief that through early education for children, especially in a diverse country like the UK, we can bring out the best versions of themselves and bridge this world which, despite its physical borders, has boundless connectivity.

I would like to extend a heartfelt gratitude to the Students into Schools team at University of Leeds and Miss Hannah Taylor alongside the teachers and students at the St Anthony’s Catholic Primary School for allowing me to become a part of this special program and providing indispensable support to my team over the past 6 months.


Khoa Nguyen
Majoring in mathematics in high school and always having strong passion for the dollar sign (silly me!), I decided to study and graduated from Foreign Trade University with a bachelor...
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