by Suying Hugh
At a very young age, the word Serviam became a part of my world of understanding. Translated, Serviam means, I will serve and is the motto of the Ursuline school that educated generations of women in my family dating back to my great-great grandmother in the former British Guiana. Although I started to follow in the tradition of my family, by my generation, political and economic repression along with the dismantling of religious education took place and resulted in the departure of my family from the country.
However, the spirit of Serviam surpasses political and economic hurdles and transcends geographic boundaries. It is a way of living which we take with us in everything we do. The vision of the schools I attended focused on giving to our communities, on helping those whom society left on the periphery and crafting our lives on being conscious of our humanity.
Public service to me has always meant the spirit of serving and finding the capacity in which we can be useful human beings. Finding the way in which you wish to serve is important but in some cases opportunities to serve find you. In the last few years working as an advisor for students who are interested in working and studying overseas I have encountered students of different academic and ethnic backgrounds who want to "volunteer". In discussions with them it is imperative to define what they want to do, how they want to accomplish their volunteer work and where they want to do this work.
To me one of the keys on the path of public service is finding the focus of your desire to serve. Thinking back on my own experiences, I share with students my belief in serendipity. As a young person, I remember being proud of the communities I was a part of, from my schools to the local hospitals and organizations I volunteered at to my country. Taking pride and ownership over our work can be the driving force that motivates us to serve because helping people and building the institutions that make our community something to be proud of is worthwhile.
Coming from the British West Indies, I have always felt a strong attachment to the region. Traveling back to various countries in the region during my childhood I saw a different world to the one in which I was living in Canada. Despite the warm and personable feel to the islands, there are very real socio-economic concerns facing the people living there. With time, these realities became more apparent to me and I wanted to understand the lives of those living in the region and in simple naiveté to make their lives better. Therefore, I had a lot to learn about what is better! This simple goal led me into the area of international development studies and tying together my diverse interests. We each meet different stages of realization and for me I realized that it was imperative for me to listen to my history for my direction because that was what defined me and in that definition would help me learn what I wanted to do.
The academic path we choose to take is important because it will determine what we have to offer to the communities we are serving. In researching undergraduate programs I found a co-operative program in international development studies at the University of Toronto. This program introduced students to a cross section of courses from the physical sciences and social sciences to the humanities in order to educate students about the multifaceted issues facing developing countries. The soil science class I was required to take was directly related to my development economics class. I had to understand that the physical limitations of the environment had to be factored into my understanding of productivity and land economics, as well as understanding the anthropological reality of culture, how people relate to the land, their rituals and history.
I entered the University of Toronto with eleven other students from across Canada. Although from different ethnic backgrounds, we shared in common international backgrounds, having traveled extensively ,and a desire to work for those countries deemed less developed. Compared to the other students I was not as "radical" in my understanding of social justice and as a young undergraduate felt I did not fit into the development community.
This is when mentorship is key to the course of events in a person's life. My professor and supervisor of studies had one of many defining conversations with me. She told me that the more vociferous persons had a way of drowning out others. She saw a place for me and indicated that I should go forth with my approach and continue to pursue what I had started; leaving wasn't the answer she asked of me but to find my own voice in the program. We all need mentors because they help us to steer the course when we cannot see our path and, above all, they are an inspiration to us.
I picked up a major in economics along with international development and over my undergraduate years I learnt from my classmates. Our differences of understanding were learning chances for all of us. We each branched off into different research areas and found our opportunities for service in various ways. I pursued my study of the Caribbean region and became acquainted with the policies and practices at work shaping the lives of the people who lived here.
I chose to go to Jamaica to work with the Ursuline community. Kingston, Jamaica is a city of extremes. The disparity between the rich and the poor is large. The Ursuline community in Jamaica ran several social outreach programs. I remain in awe of the work done by the Sisters. For me, they are a living example of service in action. They worked for those who were weaker and they did so without judgments or expectation. We can define our own service experiences if we are open to new opportunities.
I had never been in a classroom working with children but when I wrote to the nuns asking to volunteer I had no idea what they would find for me to do. Assisting as a teacher at a Basic School in a squatter settlement near to the University of the West Indies Mona Campus was what I was called to do, that was where there was work to be done. There were no teaching materials and no real divisions of grade levels. This was my first introduction to the need for resourcefulness when working in a Third World country. Each day I wondered what would happen to these children in the future. I also kept asking how I could make things better. After all that was what I went there for, I had to learn that change did not occur overnight no matter how much we wanted it to and that we must do what we had the capacity to do. I saw my time through at the Basic School and went on with my studies doing short-term coursework at the University of the West Indies International Program.
My time in the Caribbean would continue later on when I went to St. Lucia as a CUSO cooperant to work at the St. Lucia Chamber of Commerce Industry and Agriculture. CUSO is a Canadian development organization whose name in days past stood for Canadian University Services Overseas and started off as a university organization recruiting mainly from the university campuses for their overseas volunteers. Today, CUSO sends volunteers from a variety of professional backgrounds overseas to deal with the multifaceted nature of development work dealing with such topics as gender relations, the environment and micro credit.
Working at the Chamber of Commerce I worked with members of
manufacturing community. I studied the manufacturing sector, its issues and how the small island of St. Lucia approached its private sector development and goal to diversify its economy so that it does not become more tourism dependent. My time there allowed me to see the negotiations that take place at differing levels, from the private sector to the government level and on to the regional level and the Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM).
The course of my studies at graduate school and my past research interests led me to the Inter-American Development Bank. Although only for four months, I focused my interest of socio-economic issues on my assignment to research a new methodology called targeting that was being used in several countries in Latin America. Targeting is a method used in the delivery of social programs to reach the poor and I was looking specifically at the case of Mexico. When I returned to finish my graduate program at Seton Hall University's John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations the research I did on targeting provided me with the starting point of my thesis work.
None of these experiences took place in a vacuum, I found linkages through all my work and each experience gave me a building block to carry on to my next challenge. Today I work in student services and am happy to share my experiences with my students. In working specifically with international students I am eager to learn from them. I am interested to learn about the special issues that face them and to watch them as they change from their experiences in Canada.
A university setting is an enriching place to work. All around me I feel the energy of anticipation and searching. These are essential elements to people who are ready to serve. Public service is not only about doing the work; it is also about sharing your experiences so that others can learn from your choices. I am humbled by the service I have seen around me, by lifetimes of dedication by people to various communities and duties. The beauty of service is that it is not contrived or calculated, it is about doing the best we can for those around us.
About the Author:
Suying Hugh has a Master's degree in Diplomacy and International Relations from the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University. She currently works at the University of Toronto's International Student Centre.
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