The humid and rainy springtime is a busy harvest season for the tea farmers of Pinglin District in New Taipei City. In addition to the workers hired from outside of the area to help with the tea harvest, the springtime visitors to Pinglin include a group of students from NTU. For the last five years, the student volunteers have visited Pinglin Elementary School four days a week to help the local students with their schoolwork.
These young volunteers are students enrolled in a service course offered by Prof. Yi-Yi Chen of the Department of Social Work. The volunteers not only support the local children academically, but also broaden the children's understanding of social issues and inspire them to imagine greater possibilities for their futures.
Situated in the watershed of the Feitsui Reservoir, Pinglin enjoys the ideal climate and terrain for producing pouchong tea, the tea that has earned the area's terraced plantations a worldwide reputation. However, the area's development potential is limited due to its rugged terrain and dependence on tea.
Prof. Chen, who specializes in the study of community building and development, points out that environmental laws aimed at protecting the watershed make it difficult for local residents to develop other industries in the area. Tea farming is labor intensive, profits are low, and many farmers hope their children go into other lines of work. Following the opening of Hsuehshan Tunnel, the once steady stream of tourists that flowed through Pinglin has tapered to a trickle, making it hard to sustain the tourism businesses they had built up over the years.
Pinglin has only enough students to fill just one class in each of the eight grade levels taught at Pinglin Elementary School and Pinglin Junior High School. The NTU student volunteers cooperate with a local Presbyterian church to provide two hours of after-class support at the elementary school four daysa week.
Each volunteer is responsible for helping four to five elementary and junior high school students with their schoolwork. The volunteers not only check the students’ homework and help them solve study problems, they also engage the students in discussions about their interests as well as social issues, such as gender equality and labor rights.
Though the volunteer students face frustrations, they also value the time they spend working with the young students. One student who has enrolled in Prof. Chen's service course twice says he tends to focus on his direct interactions with the schoolchildren, conceding that there is only so much he can do to improve their performance at school.