“I was prepared to see that their school lacked some of the resources the US is accustomed to, but it didn’t make it any less humbling.”


Andy Chu is a bright recent Baruch College graduate who is currently working at Citigroup in New York. He decided to join the Elementary School Teaching project in Cape Town, South Africa for 2 weeks. Community service has always been a part of Andy’s life, and his teamwork and communication skills proved very useful when working in such a different context than the one where he comes from. Over his two weeks volunteering in South Africa with UBELONG, Andy proved to be a great UBELONG Volunteer who will be missed dearly. We are thrilled to bring you his interview here.

Why did you volunteer in Cape Town with UBELONG?
A friend of mine, Brian, had told me great things about UBELONG. He had been a UBELONG Volunteer in Cusco, Peru last year. Volunteering has always been a big part of my life but I’ve never really looked too much into volunteering abroad until Brian brought UBELONG to my attention. My first real travelling experience was a month I had spent in Italy and I really had a blast there. But hearing from Brian about his volunteering experience, this regular guy who is so humble and kind, was inspiring. He was an inspiring role model for me to look up to. I saw his story as a sign. And so, looking at my vacations, I decided I should do something bold – something like UBELONG. I wanted to travel richer and step out of my comfort zone. I wanted to connect and really feel like I was giving back.

What was most difficult to you during your volunteer trip?
I had planned to join the sports project, but I ended up working more as a teacher’s assistant on the general education classes because of how the schedule with the schools worked out. But this was fine, I felt I needed to adapt to wherever there was need.

Also, there were some other challenges to overcome, but I guess it turned out great. It’s a different culture with different languages. I was the only American and the only Asian, too. I was with mostly Europeans, most of them German, who naturally spoke German most of the time. So at the beginning it was a bit daunting, but you immediately start working together, and that brings people together, no matter what language they speak.

All in all, it’s also easy to feel bad for all the negative issues that you see all around you, so the greatest challenge is actually to stay positive. I would hear really sad stories, for example how mothers would drop off their kids at 6AM even though school wouldn’t start two or three hours later. They did so because they were on their way to work and could not afford to do anything else. Or, just in general, there were very few resources for the children—they had a difficult life.

On the first day of class, I was introduced to the class by the teacher. Though they didn’t know me, one of the girls told me to sit next to her. Her name was Sibulele and the kindness of her heart set the tone for the rest of my project.

As the teacher graded the homework from the previous night, I took the coloring books of the students and started reading the names on the cover. Sibulele kindly offered to help me learn to pronounce the names. They were difficult at first but over the course of 2 weeks, even the teacher was surprised I knew over half their names (and pronounced them correctly) as I said my goodbye to each of them individually.

I was prepared to see that their school lacked some of the resources the US is accustomed to, but it didn’t make it any less humbling. What really touched me was the fact that some of the students didn’t even have proper seats to sit in. Many of the chairs were either missing a back to lean on or the seat itself was broken so any kind of shift in movement would send the child tumbling onto the floor.

What really touched me was when Sibulele voluntarily offered her seat to her classmate across from her. The poor girl kept falling out of her seat and Sibulele traded seats with her. Nobody asked her to do it. It was a simple act of kindness but that was just unbelievable to me. Later, I would find out that Sibulele was a bit of a troublemaker who didn’t usually stay in her seat anyway so the broken seat didn’t really matter but that is besides the point!

What advice would you give to a future UBELONG Volunteer headed to Cape Town?
First of all, make the most of your time and have no regrets. I felt like a new person in Cape Town, I could be free. It’s important to embrace that. You’ll be so busy, and there were times I would get back to the volunteer house after a long day and just laying around would have been easy. But I forced myself to get out there and experience more.

Also, keep in mind that you’re not going to solve all the problems there. However, you should try to be the best possible person so as to take the most of this experience. You’re part of something bigger than you. Embrace it and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t fix anything. In a small way, you are making a difference and you have to remember that and feel good about it.

What kind of impact did you have on the volunteer project?
I was only there for two weeks, but I still feel that I made an impact. I think the children can very easily figure out your kindness and your will to help.  They feed off of you. So, at the end of the day being a good person and a positive role model is how I left my impact. I think they’ll remember me as somebody who brought a good example to their lives, and also a little bit of fun!

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Related post:
Meet John Tan, a Baruch College grad who volunteered with UBELONG in Hanoi, Vietnam on the Caring and Teaching Children project.