A group of Texas Aggies traveling in China spent several days with orphans in an area devastated by the May 12, 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. The students were part of a study abroad program led by Dr. Antonio La Pastina of the Department of Communication that traveled to the impoverished Liangshan Autonomous Prefecture.
While there students spent time with a special class for orphans in the rural village of Si Kai located in Sichuan. The program was made possible through the Liangshan Yi Empowerment Center, or LYFE, a nongovernment nonprofit local organization created in 2005 to help the ethnic Yi people of the region.
According to La Pastina the service learning trip to Sichuan was designed “to provide Texas A&M students with a greater understanding of the complexities of Chinese society” and to “have students experience the cultural, historical, and geographical diversity of China and specifically work side by side with local members of the community.”
The group from Texas A&M began their one-week service learning trip from the city of Xichang. While in Xichang the Aggies met up with volunteer Yi college students assigned by LYFE to facilitate their service learning. From Xichang, the students boarded a bus and made their way up the winding 307 Provincial Road towards the rural mountain village of Si Kai and the special orphan class.
Formally known as the Si Kai Love Class, it is made up of 37 children ranging in age from nine to fifteen years old. The class was started three years ago to help Yi children who were orphaned by the ravages of AIDS. The Aggies interacted directly with students, participating in classroom activities promoting cultural exchange and discovery. The occasion was one of many firsts for both sides as it was the first time for the Aggies to experience Yi culture and the first time for the orphans in the Si Kai Love class to meet foreigners.
Thomas Kearney, an MPIA candidate at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, was one of the Aggies participating in the service learning trip.
“The best part about spending time with the orphans was seeing how joyful they are despite their circumstances,” Kearney said. “The kids were extremely loving and giving, and it was both humbling and inspiring to see their behavior and attitude.”
The group from A&M spent a total of four days volunteering with the Si Kai Love class. A typical day with the orphans involved classroom activities to nurture exchange and interaction in the morning and an afternoon filled with spirited games, an opportunity for Aggies to discover cultural similarities through play. The students were also able to experience traditional Yi meals with ingredients such as pork, chicken, and horsemeat.
On the last day of the service learning program the Aggies visited the extended families of the Si Kai Love class before returning to Xichang, seeing first-hand the challenging conditions that impact the region. As a show of appreciation for the insightful and meaningful experiences gained by the service learning students, the Aggies made a donation of school supplies, P.A. stereo system, and 37 pairs of shoes to the Si Kai Love class. In keeping with the Aggie core value of service, the A&M students are planning to raise funds for the Si Kai Love class after returning home to College Station.
“The most challenging aspect of working with the orphans was the overwhelming sense of helplessness. Though having the opportunity to serve for several days is amazing, there is always the desire to do more. Hopefully this experience will motivate all of the students to look for more opportunities to serve, both abroad and in the U.S.”, said Kearney of his overall experience with the service learning program.
The visit to the village was facilitated by staff of the Liangshan Yi for Empowerment Center, with assistance from colleagues at the Sichuan 5.12 Voluntary Relief Service Center and the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences.