Students Without Borders tackle common community issues
Teenagers from China and the United States are trying to neutralize bilateral tensions by coming together online to build community projects through a program called GenDream – short for “generation of dreamers”.
Created in 2019, the program aims to unite high school students from both countries to solve common problems in areas such as health, education and the environment. Their solutions not only benefit society, but can also generate money.
“GenDream has improved my outlook because I can now say with confidence that our generation is uniquely capable of delivering innovative products and services, promoting sustainability and providing hope for the future,” said Vyoma Patel, participant from Texas. “Our generation has ideas, creativity and energy.”
Shen Hehe, co-executive director of the program, said, “One word to describe GenDream is ‘diverse.’ Diverse backgrounds and geographic locations; various topics explored by various teams.”
Shen graduated from Harvard University with a degree in government affairs and previously led business development and partnerships at virtual event platform Run the World. She joined GenDream in 2019 as one of its founding coaches.
“Based on my educational experience, I benefit from a multicultural education,” said Shen, 27.
“When I read news about the strained relations between China and the United States, I often become emotional. This is not the world I knew when I was a high school student. I want to build a bridge between teenagers from both country. “
The program was launched by a group of young professionals from multicultural backgrounds and experienced in information technology or venture capital. It is based on the concept of social entrepreneurship.
“Social entrepreneurship is the process by which individuals and startups develop business solutions to social, cultural or environmental issues,” Shen explained. “Unlike purely nonprofit groups, its solutions can generate both profit and social good.”
Four sessions were held with 57 participants from over 20 cities across China and the United States. Each session lasts 12 weeks. During the period, participants identify issues in their communities, create user research, develop prototypes, collect user feedback, and show off their results in what’s called Demo Day.
Participants are guided by experienced coaches, including an interaction designer at LinkedIn, a product manager at Microsoft, startup founders and academics.
“Our program coaches are volunteers,” Shen said. “They are passionate about cross-border culture and want to dedicate their time to sharing knowledge.”
In addition to the program coaches, there are also peer coaches who facilitate group discussions and provide support.
The winter 2020 semester coincided with the COVID-19 outbreak. Participants created two projects related to the global health crisis. One focused on the digital divide in distance education; the other created a contactless delivery service for seniors.
Last summer, the GenDream program produced ideas aimed at solving problems such as access to education, gender equality, health and well-being.
Participants also enjoy their favorite activities together, such as virtual workouts, sharing cooking pictures and singing.
“I took Chinese lessons in school, but I never met anyone from China,” said participant Jack McDonnell from San Francisco. “This program has allowed me to get to know my peers halfway around the world on a personal level, regardless of what I hear in the news.”
Wang Haoran, 18 years old
While studying at the Shanghai Foreign Language School Affiliated to Shanghai International Studies University, Wang Haoran attended GenDream’s 2020 Winter Session.
As a result of the pandemic at the time, many schools switched to online learning. After discovering that internet access was a common problem for underprivileged students in both countries, he and his teammates created a website called InterAction to provide easy access to online educational resources and faster internet services.
The website includes tips for improving existing Internet connections, lists places like cafes that offer free Internet access, and provides information about Internet service providers.
Q: Why do you want to join the program?
GenDream is building a bridge between young people in China and the United States. I want to change people’s view of relations between the two countries. In addition, I have always been passionate about participating in social work. The program coincided with the start of the epidemic. My school has closed and all offline activities have been cancelled. With GenDream, I was able to continue contributing to society online.
Q: The fundamental principle of GenDream is social entrepreneurship. What does this mean to you?
It’s a way to start a startup that not only focuses on short-term monetary gains, important as they are, but also on the long-term impact on societal, cultural and environmental issues that affect daily life. .
Q: What did you learn from the program?
I really grew as a person. I not only learned how to do marketing and user research to get public funding – which I did for my Special Olympics basketball studio – but I also started to focus on problems important things that often go unnoticed by most people. I have dedicated myself to helping achieve educational equality.
Ada Yu, 17 years old
Ada Yu has been involved in GenDream since her first session and is now volunteering as a peer coach. She is a Chinese-American who lives in Boxford, Massachusetts, where Asians make up 2% of the approximately 8,000 residents. She wanted to learn more about Chinese culture, which led her to join GenDream when she first heard about it.
Yu and Wang were online teammates, tackling the issue of access to digital education. She used the connectivity she learned to create a bilingual medical communication tool called the LangBridge Communication Board to overcome the language barrier in emergency medical treatment.
Q: What do you think of the cultural differences between China and the United States?
They are often very interesting. For example, one day we were talking about sex education. People in the US consider this to be completely normal, but some of our peers in China have told us that there is still stigma and discrimination around sex education. (A team of GenDream participants tackled this problem by creating a website offering sex education through the lens of art.)
I have also found that cultural differences not only exist in different countries, but also in different cities here in the United States. I’m in Boston now and some of the attendees are in California. I also see cultural differences between us.
Q: This is your fourth return to the program and you have volunteered as a peer coach three times. Why is that?
GenDream has become more than just a program. It has become my family. Building our prototypes and talking with other members from the United States and China gave me a new understanding of both cultures and showed me the value of diverse perspectives. It is this linguistic and cultural interaction that motivates me to return to each session.
It would be wrong to describe GenDream as a simple meeting of young students passionate about community services or a pure masterclass in social entrepreneurship. It pulls the best of both, creating an immersive and eye-opening experience that taught me what it means to be a global citizen.
Q: What did you learn from the program?
Before attending GenDream as a community leader in my second year, I was new to the concept of social entrepreneurship. Not having taken a business course in school, I was also new to the business world. The step-by-step lectures given by the experienced coaches gave me a comprehensive overview of the process of creating a social enterprise.