The first day of the Talloires Network Conference yielded some interesting insights into the work being undertaken by students around the world. Irrespective of geographic divide and difference, it became plain that student projects were united by the common thread of selfless giving. Projects were initiated in areas as diverse as Palestine and remote regions in South Africa. They were all run by students interested in generating positive benefits for their local communities. Furthermore, these students were interested only in the work they were doing and not on individual acclaim, despite receiving this in the form of awards and publicity. With so many successful examples of effective change it is perhaps most important that self reflection plays a role.
A workshop titled ‘The Importance of Meaning-Making’, organised by the staff of Bard College, particularly resonated with me on this point of self reflection as a means of self assessment. It is of the greatest importance to understand why one is doing what they are doing in a student project in order to move forward. In trying to ultimately understand the meaning of a student’s efforts, they should move to examine their individual: motivations, ethics and work implications. It is only through this deep understanding of one’s own objective and purpose that meaning is generated. In this search for meaning, a number of key questions should be asked. Questioning whether a project matters, who it really affects and perhaps most importantly, whether anyone really cares is of primary concern.
The workshop given by Bard laid out nine key steps that essentially simplify this often confusing process of self reflection. These nine steps eventually serve to form the scaffold of a book, in a sense, the project leader’s ‘own story’. Emphasis was placed on these steps not necessarily being followed in a short time period, but rather over the course of a semester or a year. Starting off, it is helpful to generate topics relevant to your individual project. This was given context by a student speaking at the workshop who talked of her own experiences in a small West Bank village. The next step would be choosing a single topic from the list, enabling focus to be placed on the more important project features. After asking questions about your project along the lines of: family life, government and transportation, these questions should be answered. These same questions should then be directed to the project leader’s own life, this is of course a self reflective process. A critical step identified in the workshop was step five, which was where intersections between a project leader’s own life and the lives of those involved in the project were identified. Giving names to these intersecting themes includes the creation of a book title and using the identified themes as the chapter titles. Writing about personal feelings and reactions to each of these chapter headings is also essential and leads on to step 8, where the leader should write the introduction of their ‘own story’. The final step is perhaps the culmination of the reflective process and involves looking back at the sequence and formulating new sets of questions.
The creation of meaning is cyclical and as a project develops, evolves and changes, so too should the meaning drawn from the project change. Self reflection serves as the most important benchmark of progress as it helps individuals focus and move forward. It benefits primarily those we are trying to help and ultimately, this is the primary aim of civic engagement and the pursuit of social equality.