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Learning to Serve, Serving to Learn

Opening hearts and minds in Cambodia

"This journey changed my mindset and attitudes. I feel I have found a new direction in my university life."

According to UNAIDS, more than 5,000 children up to the age of 14 are living with HIV in Cambodia. Many of them are orphans, having survived parents who died of AIDS. 

In the summer of 2014, students from the School of Optometry at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University went to Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, to provide eye screening for HIV-infected orphans. This was part of the Service-Learning programme that has become a hallmark of PolyU education. 

PolyU is the first university in Hong Kong to introduce a credit-bearing Service-Learning requirement for all students regardless of discipline. Aiming to inspire students to become socially responsible citizens, Service-Learning connects professional education with societal needs. 

The participating students took inspiration from the children they cared for. “Before the trip, we thought AIDS was very horrible and children with AIDS must feel desperate,” said computing student So Wai-yan. “We observed that AIDS is not horrible and the children are just like other people. They even know better how to cherish life.”

The optometry students were not the only ones from PolyU helping out. They were joined by other students from computing, hotel and tourism management, and biomedical engineering as well as staff. They participated in developing e-Learning labs for schoolchildren, building solar-powered lights for rural villages, visiting lonely seniors in the slum community and training guesthouse staff in hospitality, food services, marketing and management.

Also joining the students was PolyU President Prof. Timothy W. Tong, who came to lend his support to the Service-Learning projects in person. 

“I am very proud of seeing what our students have achieved in Cambodia,” said Prof. Tong. “I was hugely impressed by the enthusiasm, dedication, warmth and patience they showed to the people they served.” Prof. Tong believes that the experience broadened their horizons and provided them with opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives. 

This is reinforced by Ching Tsz-hei, a student enrolled at the Institute of Textiles and Clothing. “This journey changed my mindset and attitudes. I feel I have found a new direction in my university life,” he said. “I learned to be responsible, respectful and care for the community.”