Creating a Legacy of Social Change

Guest Article by John Millock
Tufts University
Student Amira Maruang speaking at the XChange Forum at the World Innovation Forum in KL
Last April, three of my students went to a camp sponsored by the US Embassy.  The 3-day camp, called “CLICK!” was extremely ambitious, asking students from around my state (about 100 students total) to plan out and create a social enterprise.  My students chose to make handicrafts with local students with mental disabilities, calling their business: “Vandarasha Crafts Education”, and were given RM150 ($50) to start their project.   The camp also had a competition aspect- after 8 weeks the camp organizers would select winning teams from each participating state (6 states = about 600 students), of which the top 3 teams would receive cash prizes of over $1000.   To our surprise, Vandarasha was selected as a finalist.
During the project, my students interacted with students with disabilities and experienced teaching for the first time, practiced their public speaking and encountered first-hand the intricacies of a school bureaucracy.  Their products have included beaded brackets, cellphone pouches, and stringed key chains.  They also made about RM200 during the first stage of the project, amassed a team of student volunteers, and recruited younger students to continue the business until this year.
Vandarasha student leaders working with students with disabilities to make cellphone covers
As finalists, the students had to create a video and get “votes” online for their project.  While their video received almost 800 likes (the 2nd highest number) and the kids (and the teachers involved) were literally running from class to class getting students to vote, the video itself was overambitious and frankly, a disaster.  While waiting for the camp organizers to announce the winners, I learned that President Obama might be coming to Malaysia in October to speak at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Kuala Lumpur.
I figured it wouldn’t hurt to email the conference organizers directly and ask if they offered funding for students (as a ticket to the conference cost about $100).  Remarkably, the conference organizers invited us to the university aspect of the conference, where students from universities around Southeast Asia (mostly from Malaysia) would listen to inspirational speakers, network, listen to product pitches and exchange ideas.  The conference not only decided to give us free tickets for 12 students, but also agreed to fund our 5-hour bus ride to Kuala Lumpur, hire 2 vans to take us around KL sightseeing, and pay for us to stay in a hostel in the jungle for 2 nights as well as all of our meals.  The Malaysian teacher with whom I’ve been working on this project is from KL and we decided to take an overnight bus so that we could have full 3 days in the city, adding to our itinerary (which already included a trip to the famous Petronas Towers and its massive shopping mall, a gourmet chocolate shop and traditional batik crafts center, jungle trekking around our hostel lodge to a waterfall, etc): two university tours, a visit to Education USA (a US embassy initiative similar to Fulbright that advises international students on studying in the US),  trips to a well-known local crafts market and a history museum at Independence Square.
ETA John Millock with students at the Petronas Towers
Overall the trip was a great experience.  Imagine students who for the most part had been to KL (a city of 2 million people) maybe once in their lives, had never taken public transport, didn’t know about standing on one side of an escalator, had never seen a seated auditorium outside of a movie theatre, never been on a college campus, never been to a museum, never been on a jungle trek, never been on a field trip or away from their families for more than one night, had never been in a taxi, and the list continues.   We were the only high school group at the university portion of the conference, which was directed at seniors in college, as well as the only group to have a display booth set up to sell their products.
I give my friend/colleague, Amalina Mohammad, a lot of credit for being a pioneer and being the first teacher from Johor to undertake a trip like this.  For me, spending such a long time with my students was an eye-opening experience- from my Muslim students hastily shutting their hostel doors when I walked by so that I didn’t see their uncovered hair, to learning Tamil folk songs, to teaching about the SATs or how answering your cell phone during a meeting is very rude in the US, to general teenage angst, to making sure no one got lost/kidnapped/hurt/left behind in a massive mall or the streets of KL, to forcing them out of their comfort zones and watching some sink and others swim (both figuratively and literally at a jungle waterfall), to seeing a Malaysian university campus for the first time.
At the University of Malaya Campus
As a result of the conference, my students’ business had several people interested in investing and they received offers to attend more conferences and workshops.  The organizer of the university satellite conference, Ellynita Hazlina Lamin, later visited my students in Kota Masai and offered her mentorship and consultation on the social enterprise.   Four of my students were even chosen to attend the World Innovation Forum in Kuala Lumpur last November, this time not as audience members, but as guest speakers and participants on the social enterprise pitch competition.  Amira Maruang, a shy student who told me early last year she wanted to become a lecturer in science, was even interviewed on national television about Malaysian youth and social entrepreneurship.   After participating in Vandarasha Crafts Education, Amira now wants to become a businesswoman.
This year my students are focusing on expanding their work with other underserved groups in our community and creating new products, like deserts and headscarf pins.  Earlier this month, they did a workshop session with a local orphanage and are planning another with a local primary school.
Preparing materials to make deserts at a local orphanage in Pasir Gudang
While we did not make the Top 3 for the CLICK! Camp competition, the project, far from ending after 8 weeks, has the potential to continue and grow long after I’ve gone back to the US.  The opportunities that CLICK! Camp has afforded my students have been invaluable to their educational development and personal growth.  As CLICK! Camp begins its 3-day long workshops around Malaysia this year, I hope other school groups will have similar success.

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