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My 8-Week Internship at Tzu Chi as a 17-Year-Old

More than a month has passed since I completed my summer internship at Tzu Chi. Although I am already up to my neck in schoolwork, club activities, etc., the lessons that I had learned while serving as an intern in Tzu Chi are still as fresh on my mind and deep in my heart as the month before……

My 8 week Internship at Tzu Chi as a 17 year old
The writer (first from the right in a purple polo shirt) with fellow recycling volunteers at one of the Tzu Chi eldercare centres, SEEN@Nanyang

I first came to know about Tzu Chi through my sister, who is a faithful member and the current president of the Tzu Chi Collegiate Youth Association (a.k.a. Tzu Ching) at her university. She inspired me to see for myself how Tzu Chi is positively impacting local communities. And so, in March of this year, I emailed the Human Resources Department of Tzu Chi Singapore to request for an internship position during summer, and it was subsequently approved.

I was thrilled about my first ever internship opportunity and felt excited at the thought of seeing the doings of such an experienced NGO up close. I was ready. And indeed, the experience turned out to be one of the most enriching eight weeks of my life.

My first task given by the “sisters” (my colleagues) at the Volunteer Management Department, which I was attached to, was, not to anyone’s surprise, paper-shredding. (No worries, though! It got “upgraded” real fast.) One of my major responsibilities was the analysis of Tzu Chi’s volunteer database. I was tasked to study the relationships between their age, gender, residential area, and proactiveness, in order to offer insights into ways of mobilising potential volunteers. So, I began poring over the data of more than 3,000 Tzu Chi volunteers……

Eleven years of school had never taught me to “excel at using Excel”, nor did it ever prompt me to self-learn it. And so, I felt incredibly fortunate that through this data analysis task, I was able to explore Excel’s Pivot Table and many other functions. (Now, back in school, doing projects for my Statistics Class has become so easy and enjoyable!) Nevertheless, I was even more fortunate to get to learn about Tzu Chi’s Four-in-One Volunteer Structure, a framework for organising its volunteers.

For three years, I have been a devoted debater at my school’s Speech and Debate Club, through which I was able to learn about current affairs, global issues, and the importance of active, non-state entities, such as NGOs. However, before coming to Tzu Chi, the terms, “NGO” and “charity organization”, simply remained as “words” that I could use when I had to argue for positive social change during a debate session. Never had I truly seen the ways these organisations mobilise people, much less the ways they unite people to work towards one social cause.

This internship provided me with a valuable opportunity to interact with people of various different ages, backgrounds, and careers, all of whom share the common goal of making the world a better place. At the Tzu Chi Eco-Awareness Centre, not only did I meet “aunties” as old as 80 years old, I also met a Dutch who was working in Singapore and had signed up online to do recycling at Tzu Chi, a housewife who had previously lived in Shanghai, a few Indonesian college students who were keen to learn about climate change, and some laundry shop workers whose employer is a devoted Tzu Chi volunteer.

All of them inspired me.

Though I was not new to the dreadful consequences of climate change, at the Eco-Awareness Centre, I realised that I, too, have the power to create positive change. Knowing how meaningful my actions were, I was driven to stay focused on my work for long hours, whether it was cleaning up the recycling area or assisting in giving tours to incoming visitors. I had the drive to use up my weekends and stay overtime. I felt honoured to do so.

My internship at Tzu Chi revealed to me qualities that I never knew I possessed— my perseverance, tact, and compassion. Being able to experience first-hand how the Four-in-One Volunteer Structure plays out in real life and to become part of the community advocating for better social change, I was enlightened on many issues.                                                                             

In school, my teachers regularly check on me for completed assignments and test me on my learning abilities. I am compelled to attain knowledge to formulate my own stances and articulate my thoughts, but most importantly, to get perfect grades and live up to others’ expectations.

But, at Tzu Chi, no one was there to boss me around or test me. I was the one pushing myself to do more. I was the one who wished that, together with others, we could make this world a better place. I was learning not just to express myself, but to be able to empathise with others, to understand what others need, and to cater to those needs.

Tzu Chi brought me a great leap forward by turning my passive motivations into initiatives. It wasn’t just the nature of the social work Tzu Chi does; it is the character of the volunteers and my colleagues—their kindness and undying enthusiasm—that planted the seed of compassion in my heart.

Now, I try to carry these values and motivations with me wherever I go. Coming back to school, I am helping our school’s Debate Club go carbon-neutral by donating money to environmental projects that reduce carbon footprints. I am also raising awareness on the harmful effects of plastic usage and the benefits of adopting plant-based diets, and I wish to do more in the rest of my school year as a member of the new Recycling Club.

Now, when I feel like suffocating from schoolwork, I will try to take a step back and see that I am learning, because Ireally want to be able to use this knowledge to initiate more positive changes in the future. With that in mind, I find that my classes have become even more interesting, the club activities—more enriching, and school life—more enjoyable than it already is.

Thanks to Tzu Chi, and all the brothers and sisters who have helped me in my quest of becoming a better self.

Editor’s note: The writer is a Singaporean student of Tsinghua International School in Beijing, China.

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