Looking out my window, I can only see a dusting of stars veiled by the lively glow of the city at night. The Singapore skyline is breathtaking, like something out of a science fiction novel set in the far off future. When I imagined what it would be like to spend the summer in Asia with MIT’s MISTI Singapore program, I didn’t predict that I would be living in a city more developed and dynamic than any U.S. city I’d ever seen. But here I am, in the heart of Asia’s center for innovation and entrepreneurship.
This past year that I’ve spent in iHouse has entirely transformed my world perspective, and has inspired me to spend my summer abroad. Here in Singapore, I feel as if I’ve taken the plunge into an entirely different culture. I’m immersed in this Eastern ether of customs, traditions, values, opinions, and ideas that are completely different from my own. It has helped me tremendously to reevaluate my own beliefs and assumptions, and to revamp my understanding of the world. I hoped that a summer in Singapore would also provide me with some inspiration for an ID project to pursue. But, when everyone you meet is either a student, a researcher, a businessman, or a professor competitively pursuing the frontiers of his or her field of study, it’s challenging to unearth the potential for international development. It seems to be buried in the race to continue developing the industrialized world.
I was beginning to feel utterly uninspired when I took a three day trip to Cambodia with three other MIT students. Little did I know that right next door to Singapore, a futuristic metropolis, was a small, developing nation populated mainly by farmers, small shop owners, and tuk-tuk drivers rather than business tycoons and magnates. I had the unparalleled opportunity to visit The Summit Foundation in Phnom Penh, an orphanage populated by young Cambodians whose individual stories of personal development and achievement left me speechless.
One student asked for my advice on balancing schoolwork with all of life’s other commitments. I shared my methods of finding time for homework, a part time job, volunteering, and extracurricular activities, but she looked disheartened by my answer. It turns out that my “busy” schedule was nothing compared to hers; she was tasked with waking up at 4 AM to tend to her household chores and younger siblings (she was head of the household since the death of her parents). Then, she would go to school at the Summit Foundation, next, off to her full time job so that she could provide for her family. She would return at night, cook for her siblings, tend to her home, and only have the time to begin her homework well after midnight. How could she sleep? How could she work longer hours in order to buy more food for her growing siblings? How could she possibly keep her grades high enough to secure a spot in a good university?
How I wished I had all of these answers.
A second girl asked for my help in applying for college scholarships. Together, we went over the process until she was satisfied, but as I finished talking to her about financial aid, she looked uneasy. “Is something wrong?” I asked.
“Do you think that a college would take away my scholarship if they found out I wasn’t healthy?” She inquired nervously. “I’ve already had two heart attacks, and I’m afraid that if they found out, they wouldn’t let me attend at all.”
We sat there together, a first generation college student and an aspiring first generation college student. The hurdles that I had overcome to get to where I was paled in comparison to the road that lay ahead this young girl. Actually, this was a young woman; she was older than me, but had not yet finished her schooling since her heart condition had forced her to take a couple of gap years already. She struggled with finding enough time to devote to her studies and her job without overexerting herself, and her life’s dream was to become a doctor. Why? To help others like her achieve their dreams in the face of their physical ailments.
By the time I returned to Singapore from Cambodia, my head was spinning and my heart was full. I had come searching for answers to my questions about the world around me, about the people and the problems and the ways in which I could lend my aid. But I left with more questions, with leaks sprung in my understanding of the world that had let all of my previously held assumptions drain out.
I have discarded one question, though. I no longer ask myself if I can unearth an opportunity to become involved with international development. Now, I ask myself: Where do I even begin?