My Last Week at Stepping Stones

My last week at Stepping Stones was quite interesting. We organized a summer camp for a group of college students from the US. They had the opportunity to teach five English lessons to migrant children in west Shanghai, take the children on a field trip, learn Shanghai opera and calligraphy, and interact with local youths. One of my responsibilities was to organize a field trip. We chose to go to the Shanghai Auto Museum. The museum offered guided tours, but we also wanted to design extra activities that could bond the migrant children with the American students. I designed a scavenger hunt. We divided the children into fourteen groups of four. Each group was led by one American student. Each group was given a worksheet. They needed to find the corresponding cars in the museum using the clues from the worksheet. I wrote the rules of the activity a week before and had them approved by my colleagues and the museum. I announced the rules before the activity started, stressing that safety was the priority. The activity was very successful. Every child was involved, and some of them were very excited. I saw groups of students running up and down the museum to find the cars. At the end of the activity, we gave prizes to the winning teams. Other children got souvenirs from the museum. I prepared some extra questions for the scavenger hunt, so Stepping Stones could use them in their future trips to the Auto Museum. From the written feedback, I know that the American students loved the activity as well. However, a few of them complained that the activity was a bit disorganized. To avoid this problem, I could have gathered the American students before the activity and given them tips on how to organize the children effectively.

Besides the field trip, I was also involved in the youth meeting and the opera class. I acted as the translator. While translating, I also learned that, despite the difference of educational background, Chinese and American young people have many in common. For instance, their topics of discussion ranged from online shopping to the urban development. They are interested in food as well as fairy tales.

The end of the summer camp also marked the end of my ten-week internship at Stepping Stones. In these ten weeks, I coordinated a summer program, helped to edit a documentary for the organization, wrote lesson plans for volunteers, helped a professor to conduct her research, met lots of people, and explored my area of interest. These projects have improved my working skills. I learned how to coordinate a program, how to use Premiere Pro to make a decent video, and how to interview a person effectively. By observation, I also learned how to write a newsletter and an annual report for an NGO. All of these skills may come in handy in my future career.

Interning with Stepping Stones offered me the opportunity to see an NGO from an insider’s perspective. It is fascinating to see how a small organization helps thousands of disadvantaged children with their English studies. It is also excited to see that many of the children’s English grades have improved significantly after they participated in Stepping Stones’ programs. This internship has reinforced my belief in social justice. Children, no matter where they are born, should have equal access to education. If the government cannot reach that goal, the civil society, including corporations and nonprofit organizations, should play a major role. Since I enjoy working with Stepping Stones so much, I am considering working in the NGO or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) sector in the future. The director of Stepping Stones forwarded us an invitation from the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai to attend a CSR seminar organized by them in July (this summer). The keynote speakers included the CSR managers from Citi China, WalMart Global Sourcing, and Abbott China. I learned how multinational corporates operate their CSR programs in China and what their achievements are. Since I learned about CSR in my year abroad, I had the opportunity to apply the theories in real world and take in the seminar critically.

My suggestion for those who are also interested in working with NGOs is that they should not come to an NGO with nothing but a determination to “help others”. They should research about the field that the NGO works in beforehand. That is why Stepping Stones require all volunteers and interns to attend a mandatory 4-hour orientation. In this orientation, we learned about the general situation of migrant children in China as well as teaching techniques. In addition, it is likely that the people who work for NGOs gain more than the beneficiaries do. Therefore, one should be modest when working with the beneficiaries. After all, it is a great field to work in. The fulfillment that one gets from working with NGOs and other charity programs is priceless.

Now I am back in Brandeis. I miss every bit of my time in Shanghai. I will stay in touch with Stepping Stones and the lovely people I met there. This internship is definitely one of the highlights of my college life.

Midpoint Review and Rethink: Can We Change Their Lives?

“Dear volunteer, this is Terry Chenyu Li, the coordinator of the Pujiang New Citizen Life Center 4 (NCLC4) Program. Welcome to our team! …”

This is the format of the emails that I have been sending for the past two weeks. As the coordinator of the summer English program at a community center in south Shanghai, I have to notify the volunteers about their teaching times and give them directions to the center. The NCLC4 program is the distant program from the city center. Volunteers have to spend 30-50 minutes on the subway and 15 minutes on the bus to reach the school. Since most volunteers are foreigners, I try to accompany them on their first teaching days to make sure they can get to the center on time. I usually take advantage of this commute time to investigate volunteers’ motives. This is of great interest to me because of one of the classes that I took in my year abroad at University College London. In this class titled “development geography”, I learned the importance of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and volunteerism, and some of the problems associated with them.

New Citizen Life Center 4 (NCLC4) in Pujiang Town. south Shanghai
New Citizen Life Center 4 (NCLC4) in Pujiang Town. south Shanghai

One of the benefits of volunteerism is that it can build mutual understanding between different cultures. Some of our volunteers are foreign students and expats. They live in gated communities and thus have little contact with local communities. One of their motives for volunteering is to “get to know the people better”. Many of them have never heard the terms “migrant children” or “hukou” before. After participating in our program, they become aware of the social injustice in Shanghai. Some of the volunteers are so inspired that they decide to join Stepping Stones. For example, Oliver Pointer, our current training manager, had volunteered with two of Stepping Stones’ programs before he joined Stepping Stones.

Many Shanghai high school students also choose to volunteer with us during the summer. Most public middle and high schools do not admit non-Shanghai citizens, also known as migrant students. For those who do, they usually have separated classes for them. As a result, most Shanghai middle and high school students do not have close contact with migrant children. By volunteering with us, these students develop their understandings of this “unknown community” who build the skyscrapers, clean up the streets, feed the people, and drive the subway. Given that these students could have a great impact on the future of Shanghai, they could, in time, alter the prejudice against migrants and possibly be part of the force that abolishes the hukou system. Therefore, their participation is especially important.

Some of the volunteers at NCLC4. Oliver is the tall man standing in the center-left. I am on the very right.
Some of our volunteers and students at NCLC4. Oliver is the tall man standing in the center-left. I am on the very right.

Working at Stepping Stones also provides me with the opportunity to interact with other NGOs in Shanghai. One that Stepping Stones closely works with is Shanghai Young Bakers (SYB). The French-initiated SYB provides free nine-month bakery training lessons to disadvantaged youths from rural China. SYB adopts the “alternance” concept, meaning that their students spend two weeks of classes at school and two weeks of practical internship at international hotels for the whole duration of the program. Since English is one of the working languages at these hotels, Stepping Stones offers free English classes to SYB students. When I attended SYB students’ graduation on July 15th, I was surprised to see that all SYB students, who had variable knowledge of English before coming to Shanghai, were able to give fairly informative personal statements in English. They even delivered two short dialogues based on their daily conversations. During the graduation ceremony, I talked to interns, volunteers, and staff from SYB. I could feel that they are very passionate about their jobs. They believe that this nine-month training could change many of the students’ lives. However, after talking to one of the training managers at SYB, I realized that the impact might be much less than many people anticipate. The manager suggested that the first ten years of working in bakeries or hotels is a tough time. Only those with dedication and talent would remain in this industry. Some of the students may choose to work in other fields or return to their hometowns, and many of them will remain economically vulnerable in the society.

John is a graduate from SYB. He interns at the Renaissance Yangtze Hotel in Shanghai.
John is a graduate from SYB. He interns in the Renaissance Yangtze Hotel in Shanghai.

This seemingly disappointing opinion exemplifies a real problem of NGOs that I learned from “development geography”: as long as the social structure remains unchanged, NGOs can scarcely change the lives of the poor. The disadvantaged will remain disadvantaged. In China, NGOs have little effect upon the structure of the society. They do not want, nor do they dare, to challenge authority.

If NGOs can scarcely change society, why do we still do what we do? How can NGOs be improved? We had a discussion regarding these questions among Stepping Stones staff on July 16th. We discussed the possibility of turning Stepping Stones into a “social enterprise”. If we provide the same level of English education as educational corporates do, why don’t we charge our students for some of our programs? We could use the money to expand our programs and to help those who cannot afford them. Social enterprise is a possible solution to the sustainability of NGOs, expanding their influence and alleviating social injustice, yet it still cannot fundamentally solve the injustice that is deeply rooted in the local structure of society. This links back to one of my previous points: by raising young Chinese people’s awareness towards the unfair treatment of migrant children and involving Chinese youth in this force for change, we can probably influence the future of China.

I am glad that by the halfway mark of my internship at Stepping Stones, I have met so many passionate people at various occasions. I have explored my studies of NGOs in real life, and real life has raised new questions for my studies. I am sure I will learn more in the next few weeks at NCLC4 and Stepping Stones. The weather is getting unbearably hot in Shanghai, but I am in love with the city and what I am doing here.

I am ending this blog as the format of my emails always end:

“Should you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me.


Terry Chenyu Li”

Injustice and Hope behind the Glamorous Shanghai

My internship is in what I consider to be one of the most exciting cities in the world. The skyscrapers in Lujiazui point their needle-like rooftops to the sky. Hundreds of thousands of cars run across Puxi on the Yan’an Elevated Road. If you drive slowly on the elevated road, you could spot some of Asia’s most expensive real estates in the former French Concession. Yes, this is Shanghai, a city known for its rapid urbanization and its splendid lifestyle. However, behind the shiny office buildings and luxury shopping malls lies the institutional discrimination against migrant workers and their children. The Hukou system restricts non-Shanghainese’s access to the social welfare in Shanghai, such as free public education and healthcare. Many migrant schools were established to provide education for migrant children. In recent years, the Shanghai municipal government has integrated migrant schools into the public education system and has allowed migrant children to join public schools. Nevertheless, many migrant students still have learning difficulties, especially in English. Schools in many other provinces only offer English to students from the third grade and above. Meanwhile, schools in Shanghai offer English from the first grade. Thus many migrant children cannot catch up with the class assignments. In addition, most of the migrants have little knowledge of English, so they cannot provide sufficient assistance with their children’s English studies. As a result, migrant students are in relative disadvantages when competing with Shanghai students.

Stepping Stones aim to help these migrant children with their English studies. It runs English programs in numerous migrant schools and community centers across Shanghai. All the teachers are volunteers. Some of them are foreign expats, some are exchange students, and some are passionate Chinese. Their main tasks are to help migrant children with their spoken English and to increase their interests in English. As an intern, my task now is to assist Professor Friederlike, a German Professor, to investigate the feedback from teachers, parents, and students.  Professor Friederike used to be a volunteer at Stepping Stones. She is interested in how the English program has changed the children’s perception of English, how the program has changed their grades, and how it could be improved. She is also interested in the Chinese people’s perceptions of NGOs and migrants’ living conditions. Her research topics are in my interest as well, and I learned quite a lot from our conversations with teachers, parents, and students.

Tangsi Elementary School in Pudong, Shanghai. 999 migrant children study there.
Tangsi Elementary School in Pudong, Shanghai. 999 migrant children study there.

We have spoken to four English teachers, one parent, and more than ten students at two schools and two community centers. Their feedback is all positive. When asking what is their definition of “volunteer”, they tell us that volunteers are warmhearted and benevolent people who are willing to help those who need assistance. Students enjoy the classes taught by volunteers. These classes have greatly increased students’ interest in English. A teacher from Tangsi Elementary School tells a story about a student from the second grade. The student used to be sleepy in her English class, but he is now very active in the English classes taught by volunteers. In these classes, students not only can consolidate their English studies, they can also gain new perspectives of the outside world. For instance, volunteers introduce western festivals to the students, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. The children have the opportunity to experience these festivals in their classrooms, and the experience has inspired them as well. One of the students that we interviewed hopes that China will adopt Thanksgiving and make it a day for children to thank their parents.

Although government regulations are unfair and the prejudice against migrants is rooted in some local people’s minds, you can still see that many migrants enjoy their lives. Living in this mega-city can mean that it is hard to find the sense of belonging, yet migrants have discovered and developed their own communities. Moreover, they have not given up their dreams. The students are confident about their future. They talk about going to colleges in the US, becoming a lawyer, and teaching English abroad. What really impresses me is that the migrant students from Tangsi Elementary School donate money to a school in the relatively underdeveloped Anhui Province every March. They believe that even though they are not rich, they still need to help those who are poorer than them. I am moved by their kindness, and I am glad to see that such spirit is still powerful among the so-called “selfish and spoiled generation” that is the Chinese youth nowadays.


View from Stepping Stones' office, with the skyline of Xujiahui in the back.
View from Stepping Stones’ office, with the skyline of Xujiahui in the back.


In the following weeks, I will be one of the program coordinators at a local school, so I will interact with the volunteers and the students more closely. I am looking forward to that, and I hope I can learn even more about social works and social justice. Everything is changing rapidly in Shanghai, and I am glad to be part of the change.


Terry Chenyu Li

The first week at China Sustainable Energy Program (CSEP)

I just finished the first week of my internship at the Beijing office of China Sustainable Energy Program (CSEP). CSEP is a non-profit organization, headquartered in Beijing, China. The main goal of CSEP is to reduce carbon emissions and air pollution in new and existing Chinese cities by promoting and implementing sustainable urbanization and transportation systems. These goals are achieved by working with national and municipal governments to establish pilot projects demonstrating the effectiveness of sustainable urban development in China and providing personnel training programs. The Beijing office aims to provide program management and funding to more than 40 regional projects around China. Technology support is provided by China Sustainable Transportation Center (CSTC). There are about 30 staff members in this office, and there are four interns helping for this summer. Most funding of CSEP comes from HP Inc.

My internship mainly consists of two parts. First, I will be tracking progress of the projects, conducting data entry and analysis, writing project evaluation reports, and translating some related materials. Second, I am very lucky to have a chance to join the Jinan Sustainable City Planning Project. We will analyze real residential energy use data gathered for the last three years and conduct some research for further project refinement.

I found this internship from “Earth Notes” sent by Prof. Laura Goldin. “Earth Notes” is a list of internship opportunities for students of environmental studies and other types of related social work. The summer internship in CSEP got my attention and interest immediately because of its location in China and because the energy field has always been an interest of mine. I sent them my resume and after a phone interview, I got this summer internship.

The first week of this internship has been interesting and a bit challenging. My supervisor and other colleagues are very friendly and helpful. They impressed me with their professionalism and problem solving skills from the first day I was there. My assigned jobs consist of both urgent and long-term projects. One urgent job is preparing a group of Chinese mayors before they travel to  the U.S. to learn about sustainable city planning next week.  We are now busy preparing schedules and translating papers for their trip. The long-term project is the Jinan Sustainable Planning Project, for which I will do research with another intern over the next two months. We have set goals and we will meet our supervisor on a weekly basis. This project is kind of challenging for me because it requires strong background knowledge in urban planning, but I feel like I am learning a lot and getting more and more familiar with this field as we work. The whole organization has a file sharing system accessible to interns for ongoing projects. This common file is very useful to me. I read a lot of reports, related academic papers, and background information about this organization.  I now have a much better understanding about how this non-profit organization works and how to combine theory with practice.

Finally, in terms my expectations about the internship, I hope to learn about sustainability in urban planning through reading both academic papers and reports from real projects. Second, I wish to work closely and network with my colleagues and become aware of more opportunities in the sustainability field, both in the United States and in China. Third, by conducting a research in a team environment, I hope to develop a better communication and problem solving skills, and to have a better understanding about cultural differences between the U.S and China in this field.

CSEP logo
The logo of CSEP
The view from the window near my desk (Beijing)
A very “green” office!

– Yifan Wang ’14