Youth Month 2021: The rise of virtual volunteering, internships

Rescinded job offers, cancelled trips, life plans on hold. Read how young Singaporeans are looking beyond these barriers to create opportunities for themselves — and those around them

National Youth Council, Asia-Ready Exposure Programme, Virtual Internship Programme Overseas, youth, Singapore
Founder and director of Sustainable Living Lab Veerappan Swaminathan is opening doors to global learning opportunities for young Singaporeans. PHOTO: NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE

Temasek Polytechnic graduate Aina Liyana, 21, has long intended to follow in the footsteps of her father and two older brothers by joining the aviation industry.

The third of four children, she recalls admiring and playing with airplane models that her father, an aviation engineer, had around the house.

"We'd also always watch documentaries on air crash investigations. That's what really sparked my interest in aviation," says Ms Liyana, who completed her diploma in aviation management in May.

With dreams of entering the industry, she decided to apply for internships with airline companies. But her plans were dashed when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Singapore, grounding air travel and forcing many airlines to scale back their operations drastically.

She is hardly alone in having the pandemic disrupt her plans.

Undergraduate Sarah Yee, 22, who has volunteered with the underserved since secondary school was hoping to join a new community service project when the first few Covid-19 cases started emerging in December 2019.

She had just returned from a two-week service learning programme where she taught English to children living in a remote village in the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

It was part of the Youth Expedition Project (YEP) run by Youth Corps Singapore in December 2019 to encourage youth to better understand regional issues and developments.

Launched in 2014 by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and National Youth Council (NYC), Youth Corps Singapore is a national institution that supports young people keen to serve the community.

Ms Yee, who is a third-year student at the National Institute of Education (NIE), explains that volunteering is an integral part of her life because "helping others brings me happiness".

She says: "I think that by joining these kinds of programmes, I'm making my time more meaningful and making a difference in someone else's life."

But faced with the growing health scare and travel restrictions last year, she saw her options to volunteer abroad shrinking.

Responding with resilience

How did Ms Yee and Ms Liyana react? Like many young Singaporeans, they refused to have their plans waylaid.

Ms Liyana's polytechnic tutor recommended applying for the Virtual Internship Programme Overseas (Vipo), supported by the NYC's Asia-Ready Exposure Programme (AEP).

Vipo provides final-year students in Temasek Polytechnic with remote work experience and project-based assignments with overseas organisations.

National Youth Council, Asia-Ready Exposure Programme, Virtual Internship Programme Overseas, youth, Singapore
Ms Aina Liyana, 21, pictured with one of her father's airplane models. The aviation enthusiast applied for a virtual overseas internship last year as traineeships in the aircraft industry stalled amid the Covid-19 pandemic. PHOTO: COURTESY OF AINA LIYANA

As part of Vipo, Ms Liyana joined Lotus Quality Assurance, a Vietnamese information technology (IT) company that provides end-to-end IT services, including software testing and data processing, in August last year.

To better prepare for the five-month attachment, she attended an NYC-AEP language course to learn basic Vietnamese so she could interact with colleagues there.

She was tasked with building the brand's social media engagement strategy and analysing relevant markets and competitors. To make up for her lack of experience, she sought support from helpful colleagues in Vietnam.

"One of the most challenging aspects of the virtual internship was understanding IT. But I could always drop my colleagues an e-mail or message via Skype whenever I needed help," says Ms Liyana.

For Ms Yee, it was about seeking other avenues to pursue her passion. Last October, she joined Project iSTEPUp, a YEP Goes Online (YEP-GO) initiative that aims to teach English to Vietnamese teens aged 12 to 18 in the Nui Tuong community through virtual lessons.

Launched last July, YEP-GO offers youth the opportunity to continue volunteering with overseas communities without travel.

"I joined it because of its strong focus on education," says Ms Yee, referring to her teaching experience included in her NIE curriculum.

National Youth Council, Asia-Ready Exposure Programme, Virtual Internship Programme Overseas, youth, Singapore
YEP-GO youth leader Sarah Yee (right) with a student she taught during a two-week service learning programme in the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SARAH YEE

As a co-leader in Project iSTEPUp, Ms Yee worked with a team of nine youths to prepare a 20-hour English education curriculum. The sessions covered a range of topics, including earth science and arts and culture, tailored to the Vietnamese students' interests and educational level.

Her biggest hurdles were learning to communicate seamlessly with team members through a screen and ensuring that the online classes ran smoothly.

"Everyone in Project iSTEPUp were strangers before, so we had to break the ice and learn to adapt to different working styles. But we managed to integrate, understand each other's strengths and build a strong rapport very quickly.

"The other challenge was planning ahead to minimise disruptions to our online lessons. There were times when we had to deal with poor Internet or audio connection while teaching the kids in Vietnam virtually."

Growing in a globalised world

In May last year, Mr Alvin Tan, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth, as well as Trade and Industry, said that increasing youth exposure to global perspectives was crucial, especially with Singapore's position as a hub for trade, investment and talent. He spoke at a webinar for some 1,200 youth participants of the AEP.

Programmes by the NYC, including the YEP-GO and AEP, provide immersion opportunities for the young.

The AEP provides short-term opportunities, ranging from four days to three months, for youth to broaden their cultural, political and economic awareness of Asean member states, China and India. It also encourages youth to strengthen their competencies and build friendships and networks within the region.

The programme is open to Singaporeans and permanent residents who are studying in or have recently graduated from an institute of higher learning.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges globally," says Mr Christopher Pragasam, NYC's assistant chief executive officer. "Despite this, we have seen our youth responding to the challenges with tenacity and resilience, and also extending a hand to others in need."

"Together with our partners, we continue to provide our young people with development opportunities to help them thrive amid the pandemic and beyond.

Like many of the young involved in NYC's programmes, Ms Liyana and Ms Yee have found their regional work and community service experiences meaningful.

"Before YEP-GO programmes, I lived in a bubble. You read about things happening in the world, but may not be as aware about what is happening in our neighbouring countries," says Ms Yee.

"The overseas service learning projects have helped to broaden my global perspective. I now ask questions, like: 'Why are certain communities in this condition? What is their education system like? How is it different from Singapore?'"

Ms Liyana, who will pursue a degree in air transport management at the Singapore Institute of Technology in September, has developed a deeper appreciation for intercultural relations.

"I think it's important to expose yourself to environments beyond your local borders to develop more awareness as a person living in a globalised world."

Dashed PhD dreams lead to vision for global innovation

National Youth Council, Asia-Ready Exposure Programme, Virtual Internship Programme Overseas, youth, Singapore
Mr Veerappan Swaminathan, 35, won recognition at the EcoFriend Awards back in 2016 for his sustained environmental efforts, including his upcycling and environmental education workshops through community-driven initiative Repair Kopitiam. PHOTO: ST FILE

Thinker, social innovator, problem-solver. He might only be 35, but Mr Veerappan Swaminathan has done more in life than most at his age.

When I first met him in 2017 for another article, he spoke about Repair Kopitiam.

The community-driven initiative he started in 2014 teaches people skills to repair their home appliances. The meet-ups take place in common spaces, like the void decks of Housing Board flats. The aim is to alleviate Singapore's growing waste problem.

Little has changed.

Now married with a two-year-old daughter, he is still brainstorming innovative solutions to meet the needs of the community.

As founder and director of consultancy firm Sustainable Living Lab (SL2), he helps companies come up with sustainable solutions to their problems - often with disruptive technology.

SL2, which also has a presence in India and Indonesia, creates solutions that address environmental, economic and social issues for clients around the world, including Intel, Japan's leading packaging company Nippon Closures and various government agencies.

Why look beyond our shores? "The pandemic has accelerated key global issues that are not just specific to Singapore. Students can't go to school, employees are getting laid off, people are struggling with the digital gap."

One of the ways SL2 helps to address these issues is through artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and the Internet of Things. Recently, it helped to create a curriculum to teach AI to students aged 13 to 18. The syllabus has been adopted by hundreds of schools in 14 countries, including Singapore, Indonesia and India.

Mr Veera's interest in the global community harks back to his university days.

"I didn't do very well in school in my first year. I had this grand vision of getting a PhD, but I could see that wasn't going to happen. So I started exploring the idea of creating value in other ways."

This prompted the then engineering undergraduate from the National University of Singapore to take advantage of the school's global opportunities, which included a year-long work attachment in the United States and participation in a number of competitions that called for design solutions to address global issues.

National Youth Council, Asia-Ready Exposure Programme, Virtual Internship Programme Overseas, youth, Singapore
Youth leaders like Mr Veera are opening young Singaporeans' eyes to the region through initiatives like the Asia-Ready Exposure Programme. PHOTO: ST FILE

Today, he is helping to boost young Singaporeans' global exposure through the Asia-Ready Exposure Programme (AEP). Supported by the NYC, the initiative aims to equip youth with cross-cultural skills and a deeper understanding of the region.

As an AEP project sponsor, SL2 offered internships to two tertiary students from May to July. The interns worked on projects in India and Indonesia from Singapore, helping to develop solutions for a range of issues in these countries, from food security and livelihood to community health.

More recently, the company hosted a five-day virtual exchange programme titled Intel AI for Youth Virtual Apprenticeship to bring together 26 youths each from India and Singapore for an industry and cultural immersion.

The programme was supported by the AEP, Intel, the Institute of Technical Education in Singapore and the Central Board of Secondary Education of the Ministry of Education in India.

"On one level, it's a cultural exchange boot camp where the students are required to work on real-world problems. On another level, it gives students a chance to learn about the cultures of the other country."

Mr Veera adds that they were able to swiftly set the wheels for the cultural immersion in motion with the help of the NYC, which linked them to relevant industry experts in Singapore.

  • This is the second of a four-part series for Youth Month, produced in partnership with the National Youth Council. Read the first story here.

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