LiA Showcase - Reflection on Bridging the Digital Divide in Boston with TSN

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After 18 months or so of quarantine, isolation, and solidarity, there was no better way to spend the summer than being in a foreign country whilst making an impact on its community. This was my main driving force to sign up for Timothy Smith Network’s (TSN) Leadership-in-Action program in Boston, United States of America. Needless to say, TSN’s mission to bridge the digital divide hits close to home as I come from Singapore, a developed country similar to the USA but ironically has a considerable population either not having access to technology or not equipped with technological skills. I was fortunate enough to be offered an opportunity to curate and teach the Website Design module in the Digital Design Intensive programme which recruits interns aged between 14 and 18. 

Prior to arriving in the USA, although we had a few virtual meetings with our Person-of-Contact over at TSN regarding our housing in Boston, we had very little information about where we will be staying other than that we will be housed at Tufts University for those 6 weeks. Nonetheless, I was still excited to be going to a new country and playing my part in servicing the community.

On my departure day, I was met with an unprecedented long queue leading into the airport’s security. A surge in the return of tourism and business travels coupled with airport personnel going on strikes seemed to have crippled the airport’s efficiency. While going through the snaking queues, my mobile phone pinged multiple times notifying me that my flight was delayed due to weather conditions. Fortunately, I was still at the pre-departure clearance when it was time for my original flight to depart. When it was my turn to hand in my passport for the routine clearance checks, I was asked several questions about my visit to the USA. Possibly due to the unfamiliarity of the return of summer expeditions, I was brought into a room for more questioning. ‘I hope my flight is delayed again’, I thought to myself as I waited for my name to be called. Just moments before an officer grabbed my passport and called my name, my phone pinged again - my flight has been delayed for another hour.

The queue to go through security at the Airport

I provided additional details to the officer, showing the email chains and explaining my scholarship. It did not take long for the officer to stamp my passport and let me pass. I zipped through the airport and arrive at my departure gate where I waited for my flight. ‘What a day’, I thought. After arrival at Logan International Airport, I headed straight to collect my luggage. To my surprise, the conveyor belt was empty. After several rounds of checking with the airport staff, I resigned to the fate that my checked-in luggage was lost. I gave my contact details and fortunately, my luggage was found and delivered to me the next day. 

Although it was a series of unfortunate events, I realised that most of these are out of my control. What I did was stay mentally resilient and tackle one situation at a time calmly. As Epictetus once said, ‘It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.’

Kickstarting the 6 weeks programme was a series of introductions for both the interns and scholars on how the programme was structured and Microsoft Teams which we will be using extensively. Since the scholars were responsible for curating our modules and lesson plans, we made use of our first week to get together and plan how our lessons would flow best. In Digital Design Intensive (DDI), we had 4 modules and 3 instructors. We started off the teaching with Graphic Design on Canva, followed by 3D Modelling on TinkerCAD and Fusion360, then Digital Sketching on Paint3D, and finally Website Design on Wix with HTML and CSS. 

With 2 other scholars, we had meetings to plan for weeks ahead of us and took the initiative to rearrange our modules to create the best learning experience for the interns. Our supervisors at TSN were very supportive of us taking charge of structuring the programme and gave us the freedom to swap the weeks of certain modules. Once the overarching planning was done, we started our individual lesson plans. Since we might not have experience with the modules that are not ours, we also gave tutorials to fellow scholars prior to our lessons so that we can better support the main instructor of the week.

I had the privilege of being the final scholar to teach for DDI, which gave me plenty of time to plan for my lessons. I started by researching the content I wanted to teach about and organising them in the order I wanted to introduce them to my interns. I found it a challenge to fit such a heavily-loaded module into 4 teaching days while trying to inject interactive elements into my lessons to keep them engaging. Finally, I made a choice to put certain content in my ‘reserves’ as they could not be fitted in my allocated time but I did not want to delete the effort I put into them altogether.

When I was not the main instructor, I was acting as a support for the scholar who was teaching that week. As support instructors, our main duty was to follow the lessons and type important instructions in the chat and answer any questions that might arise in the chat. Since it was a fully virtual programme, we had break-out rooms for interns to share their artwork for feedback and suggestions. My favourite part of being a support instructor was viewing the students’ artwork and interacting with them. It was heartwarming to see them grow from shy strangers at the beginning of the programme to being comfortable offering feedback and assistance to each other over the course of 4 weeks. 

During my teaching week, I quickly realised that reality does not always go according to plan. On my first day of teaching, I finished teaching about 80% of what I planned to teach for the day before it was even lunchtime. Which meant that I have 20% of the content to cover a length of 2.5 hours after lunch. I used the time that I allocated students to do their own work to modify my lesson plan for the day, and some of my lunch break to add teaching materials to my slides. Fortunately, I had some materials in my ‘reserves’ that I could add to the day’s lesson. 

It was my first classroom teaching experience, albeit a virtual one. I have always known myself to be someone who was rigid and to always stick to the plan, so this week was a test of my adaptability to adjust my plans on the fly. It took hard work to prepare more materials than needed and it was exhausting during the planning stage, and not following the plan that I spent hours making was a pity. However, have I not put in the effort to have those reserved materials, I would be scrambling for new materials in panic. 

After each teaching day, we would have a short debrief session with our supervisor to reflect on how the day went. My supervisor was surprised that my teaching day was not how I planned it and that I had so much going on behind the scenes because I appeared calm during the virtual meeting. I am glad that I had the chaos under control and kept it from affecting the rest of the team. This is the leader that I have always strived to be.

Other than the highlight of teaching and seeing our interns grow over the programme, I had the opportunity to meet new scholars worldwide. For most of us, it was our first time in the USA. With the exception of the scholar from Tufts University, it was the first time in Boston for the rest of us. As much as we were excited to be instructors, we also looked forward to being tourists on the weekend.

Dinner with TSN staff to welcome the Laidlaw Scholars

Like the interns, we started off being strangers during our first week, but we lose no time getting together to plan where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do over the weekends. We were proactive in gathering ideas and organised a calendar of fun activities to do over the 6 weeks. As an introvert myself, I was surprised that I have forged tight friendships in such a short space of time. Not only have we spent most weekends together, but we also had most of our dinners together and would have evening activities such as playing frisbees or card games.

Being in a foreign country with fellow international scholars comes with the exciting opportunity to learn about each other’s cultures. Throughout the six weeks, we had fun learning about the USA’s history and tipping etiquette. We had the pleasure of getting to know the wonderful TSN staff who demonstrated how friendly and generous Americans are.

Laidlaw Scholars and TSN Staff in our farewell dinner

All in all, it was a truly rewarding experience and time well spent with TSN, the interns that I taught, and my fellow scholars who have embarked on the journey with me. 

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