By Angus Yip (18A01A)
Several weeks ago, during my walk to the parade square for morning assembly, I saw many people stop to look at a poster near the Innovation Centre. No, not a poster – a piece of paper, rather, with a few words printed on it. Intrigued to see what this poster was about, I stepped closer and saw its contents: it touted a tantalising promise of “free VIA hours”. Underneath it was a sign-up link for a flag day event.
Seeing this got me thinking: why do students participate in Values in Action (VIA) activities? Is the whole idea of doing VIA for “free VIA hours” really as pumped up as it seems?
To clarify, VIA refers to any form of community service that students participate in, be they long-term, regular events (eg. tutoring) or ad-hoc events (eg. flag days). The Ministry of Education has stated that VIA was designed to inculcate the values of harmony, care, responsibility, integrity, respect and resilience in students.
If it wasn’t already clear, I admit it: I have always believed that the vast majority of students participate in VIA activities for the rewards. The school emphasises the importance of VIA as a way to give back to the community, but would students really prioritise something as intangible as “giving back” above the tangible reward of VIA hours?
To better understand the views of students, I conducted a survey of 52 Y5-6 students, as well as 4 interviews with students from service-related CCAs. (All interviewees have been left anonymous for privacy purposes.) I wanted to determine the general motivations students have for participating in these activities and whether these motivations have changed over time.
Giving back to the community
My first assumption – that the vast majority of students are first and foremost motivated by extrinsic rewards – has (tentatively) been proven false.
In the survey, respondents were asked to rank 5 possible reasons for attending VIA in order of priority, both when they began their VIA activities and when they attend now. These five choices were: giving back to the community, challenging one’s boundaries by trying something new, wanting to interact with other volunteers, peer pressure, and a desire to gain VIA hours.
Half of the survey respondents stated that a desire to give back to the community was the strongest motivation for them when they began participating in VIA activities, and 6 in 10 stated that this was their greatest motivation now.
It seems that “giving back to the community”, a rather nebulous concept in itself, means different things to different students. One survey respondent mentioned that community service was a “duty” to help one “recognise their privilege”, another stated that it was a way to “[make] a difference in someone’s life”, and a third respondent believed that VIA helped one learn how to “empathise with others” better.
What is common between these views is a recognition that there exists a much more diverse community than what one sees in school. This is especially important, considering that the majority of students in RI come from middle-class backgrounds (in our former principal’s words), as well as current debates on whether RI is insular, exclusive, or even elitist. VIA gives one the opportunity to interact with people that students would never speak to otherwise; the three respondents’ views attest to how eye-opening and rewarding this can be.
VIA hours – diminishing the value of activities?
However, VIA hours also manifest as an important motivation for a significant proportion of students, with 1 in 4 rating it as their strongest motivation for participating in VIA events. (Apart from giving back to the community and VIA hours, the remaining three options were ranked relatively lowly by most students.)
To these students, the pressure to have something to show for their efforts is immense. One interviewee mentioned that they joined their service CCA in order to boost their CV for university applications.
It is difficult to criticise students for possessing this mindset – this is very much a product of an education system that, many have argued, emphasises achievements above all else. Sustained community involvement is seen by many as crucial for scholarship applications as well as overseas university applications. Therefore, as the interviewee mentioned, attaining as many as 100 VIA hours is seen as necessary for a substantial proportion of students.
Extrapolating from this, I would argue that in an attempt to accumulate VIA hours, some students choose certain VIA activities that maximise their VIA hours with the least effort. Generally, these are ad-hoc activities like flag days or ushering duties where students are told to execute a certain task on the spot.
Activities like flag days also do not actually involve interacting with the beneficiaries themselves, which makes it difficult for students to learn more about the beneficiaries involved. Hence, there is no significant element of ownership (which helps students find some meaning in their work).
“If you look at students who participate in flag days, just ask them what exactly the money will be used for, or probe for details about the organisation. Chances are, they won’t be able to answer you.” – an interviewee
When I saw that poster outside the Innovation Centre, I opened the link provided and saw no details about the organisation in charge beyond a cursory description on how it aims to improve the welfare of the elderly. The organising team was simply promoting itself by helping students quickly get VIA hours; it would be difficult for students to feel any true sense of “giving back”.
Discovering the joy in service
However, it is also important to consider how students’ motivations can change over time. Based on the survey, half of the students who rated VIA hours as their top motivation for beginning their participation in VIA activities rated “giving back to the community” as their top motivation for participating now.
Regular commitment requires one to interact with the wider public, sometimes the same people, on a long-term basis, which may allow one to develop more personal bonds with the beneficiaries. As this happens, it is likely that many students will find some meaning in what they do.
Students may also begin enjoying VIA more for other reasons. One interviewee discussed how they began participating in VIA activities purely for VIA hours, but as time passed, they began establishing friendships with other volunteers. Additionally, being able to challenge one’s boundaries is likely to be fulfilling.
When asked whether they would continue participating in VIA activities if VIA hours were not recorded, half of the survey respondents stated that they would participate just as much. This includes over half of the survey respondents who were primarily motivated by VIA hours when they began their activities. This is likely the result of the joy from giving back to the community, being able to challenge one’s boundaries, establishing new friendships, and learning more in general.
Perhaps, then, requiring students to attain a certain number of VIA hours is beneficial, as it gives every student a chance to experience the process. As one respondent argued, “Maybe the best function of [VIA hours] is to nudge people who would otherwise have inertia against volunteering to start doing so — and upon beginning, they’d find value in what they were doing and learn to appreciate it.”
Altruistic or selfish motives? A problematic dichotomy
Ultimately, the survey also suggested that a clear dichotomy cannot be drawn between students who participate in VIA for the hours and those who participate due to altruistic motives. Many surveyed students felt that while they did feel some enjoyment and sense of accomplishment through volunteering, VIA hours were still important for them. When respondents rated “giving back to the community” as their top motivation, VIA hours were usually ranked second, and vice versa. Similar views were discussed by all four interviewees as well.
4 in 10 survey respondents also stated that if VIA hours were not provided for their efforts, they would either participate in these activities at a lower frequency or not participate at all. Regardless of how much meaning students find in these activities, it is still undeniable that VIA represents a substantial time commitment. If not for some form of tangible reward, it would be difficult to convince students that these activities are worth it.
Therefore, it seems that VIA hours can be beneficial in two ways. Firstly, as discussed earlier, they provide an initial push for students to begin participating in VIA activities. Secondly, they also provide some form of reward that can sustain students’ commitment to VIA in the long-term.
Clearly, different students have different views towards VIA; no individual’s experience can be representative of what VIA can (or cannot) achieve. However, it seems that the vast majority of individuals find some value in their VIA experiences beyond extrinsic rewards, considering that they would continue participating in their activities even if VIA hours were not awarded.
Whether value is found is partially influenced by the type of VIA activities one chooses to participate in. Participating in ad-hoc activities, compared to projects where one interacts with the same people regularly, seems less likely to make one feel inspired to make a sustained effort. But beyond that, one’s attitude is just as important – external affirmations alone cannot explain why some students are willing to put in so much time into long-term community service projects.
Perhaps what matters the most is for volunteers to be proactive and put in the effort required when participating in activities. It is important to remember that the organisers of these activities see volunteers as people who can actually make a difference, however minor, in their own capacities. Even if one is there only for the hours, one should at least try not to disappoint the beneficiaries.
In my opinion, it is rather saddening if one invests a substantial amount of time in VIA activities without gaining much from it. Everyone has to fulfil a certain number of VIA hours, and some students will participate in community service much more than others, but it is ultimately up to the individual to determine what value can be found in VIA.