Step Out of Your Comfort Zone and Try Something Philanthropic-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone and Try Something Philanthropic

Mei Chen (SE-PM 07) has been passionate about helping others since she was very young. As she gained experience and pursued her education, she has been actively seeking ways to expand her horizon. Chen urges fellow alumni to get involved, step out of their comfort zone and pursue philanthropic activities for the betterment of others. “It is extremely rewarding to take what you know and offer these skills and talents to those in need,” offers Chen.

Realizing the struggles of areas in the world less economically stable than the U.S., one of Chen’s current passions is U-heart; a charitable organization that has helped in the construction of 70 schools in China in the last five years. U-heart has built these schools in rural China, where the resources are desperately needed and the average household income is less than $2,000 RMB per year. Chen offers her skills for web development and consultation in the use of open source and content management systems. “Teaching non-profits how to install and configure software correctly so that anyone can update it gives them the ability to manage their own systems. This allows them to reserve their minimal budgets for other crucial resources rather than using their already strapped funds to hire outside assistance for systems management,” explains Chen.

school opening

Since the earthquake in 2008, school construction costs have grown exponentially. Rural areas have been forced to use whatever materials they have available, usually wood and mud, for building. These facilities were not safe, so new requirements have been implemented by the government for construction sites. However, steel frames are expensive and the transportation costs of these materials to areas where roads are in poor condition or nonexistent, adds to the expense of new school buildings. With local governments unable to provide extra funding to support these new building standards, many construction projects are left unfinished.

U-heart has provided donations for 35% of the construction costs; enough to jumpstart a project. Local governments then provide the remaining 65% of the costs, however, in many instances volunteers use out-of-pocket finances to support the projects as well.” Chen has been heading up a fundraising and marketing campaign to try and bolster the budgets of the school projects. Chen clarifies, “government funds can simply go away if other supplemental support is not found to complete a project.”

Networking has proven to be invaluable in her work. “Reaching out to others, including Carnegie Mellon alumni, has not only increased awareness of the existing problems faced in these economically challenged areas, but has also provided for a new source of volunteers to lend a hand in the movement.”

Mei Chen with orphan

Another project Chen has taken on is web development and administrative support for the Guizhou orphanage; located in a very primitive environment and in desperate need of support. Chen describes, “it takes two planes from Hong Kong and a ten hour bus ride just to get to the area. The education level is minimal here, so you discover very quickly that you’re viewed as an ‘expert’ in almost everything you can offer assistance in.”

With an average income of just $120-150 per year, Guizhou is very poor compared to the rest of China. Due to its high concentration of ethnic minorities, Guizhou’s social and economic development lags behind the rest of China by 30 to 40 years. Education is a precious commodity; basic resources that we take for granted, such as sanitation, antibacterial cleaners and refrigeration; are lacking here. Add to that the internet censorship in China, which becomes even more restrictive in the rural areas, and you can understand why the technological skills we can provide are so incredibly helpful.

In most instances, these projects are run by grass root local non-profits. This can actually be a benefit because typically small organizations are lean and efficient since they are used to functioning on shoe-string budgets and hiring local staff. However, non-profit assistance sometimes comes under more scrutiny; there tends to be suspicion of foreign aid in these areas. The harder it is to get funds and volunteers, the more valuable the project is to those receiving the benefits.

Chen says, “these small, local areas have no means for fundraising, so they cannot afford to sustain the maintenance costs even after a project is completed. There are ways that we can help. Time is one of the most valuable commodities. Even if you are not in China, you can offer your hours by volunteering to help with web development, creation of marketing materials and pamphlets, and translation helps is always needed.”

Also, if you plan to be in China, volunteer trips offer you a very different tour of the area; an eye-opening way to experience the ethnic minorities and see the appreciation of even the smallest offer of assistance. Chen concludes, “The information exchange that can happen in just a few short weeks is astounding. I urge anyone with a passion to help others to step out of your comfort zone after completing your graduate degree, and experience for yourself the ecstatic feeling philanthropy can offer.”