NUS students step up as Community Link befrienders to support disadvantaged families

When times are tough, a trusted friend by your side becomes a source of strength to help you persevere, overcome adversity or give you hope. For some disadvantaged families in Singapore, these friends are NUS students who opted to take up a year-long service-learning course – GEN2070 Community Link (ComLink) Befrienders, which supports a nationwide initiative to uplift families with young children staying in rental flats, and empower these families to realise their aspirations.

Students Nityasree D/O Rajendran, Ng Wesley and Darren Chua Han Yong are among the 430 NUS students who have been trained and matched with ComLink families since the course was piloted in Academic Year 2022/2023. They shared their experiences of building meaningful relationships with their assigned families, understanding the families’ needs and aspirations and partnering with the families on their journey towards social mobility.

Nityasree D/O Rajendran (Nitya): Inspiring young minds

Every fortnight, Nitya, a Year 3 undergraduate student at NUS Business School, together with another befriender Shawn, meet 12-year-old E (pseudonym) at the void deck of E’s rental flat to tutor her in preparation for the upcoming Primary School Leaving Examination.

“We have our tutoring sessions at the void deck, which is more conducive, away from the busyness of the house which E shares with her mother and four older siblings. We typically do homework and assessment papers but sometimes we also do art jamming sessions to inject some fun and bond with E,” said Nitya, whose newfound joy is learning art techniques that she can then teach E.

With continuous encouragement over these sessions, Nitya witnessed as E demonstrated a growing interest in her studies. Now E is attentive in school and motivated to progress on to secondary school where she wants to continue doing sports and arts.

E is not the only family member the befrienders have touched. They have also assisted E’s mother, who has been unemployed, in her job search so that she can better support her family. With the help of Nitya and Shawn, E’s mother was able to polish up her resume and already has an interview lined up for a customer service job.

Having done many community projects in the past, Nitya found this particular experience especially rewarding and eye-opening. “I learnt that every child and situation is unique, so what works for me may not work for them. Instead of imposing my own solutions, I learnt to be open to their ideas first, then provide my thoughts and motivate them along the way. I’ve also seen firsthand how a little empathy and care can motivate someone to improve their circumstances. I guess sometimes all they need is to know that someone cares,” said Nitya.

Ng Wesley: Helping families achieve their dreams

To Wesley, a Year 3 undergraduate student at NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the ComLink Befrienders course is a wonderful way to do something meaningful in the community and find respite from the hustle and bustle of school life.

“I’ve always been passionate about causes that support the vulnerable in our community and what I like about this course is that we interact with the same families throughout our service-learning journey. I think it is important because it allows us to really understand the family’s unique circumstances, and see trade-offs through their eyes. We get to navigate real-world complexities alongside them,” said Wesley.

One of the families Wesley befriends aspires to own a flat one day. This dream had to take a backseat when the father suffered a stroke. As a result, his doctor has currently deemed him medically unfit to resume his job as a private-hire driver, putting significant strain on the family’s finances. Determined to do what he can for his family, the father has approached Wesley and his ComLink supervisor about finding suitable employment during his recovery.

“Even though he is struggling with the side-effects of his medication, it is heartwarming to see his determination to contribute to the family’s finances so that they can realise their dream of owning a home someday soon. He also takes such a keen interest in his children’s education, and they are doing very well in school,” said Wesley.

Not only has his befriending experience been emotionally and mentally rewarding, it has also helped the Political Science major in his coursework. “This semester I’m taking a course called Singapore Politics in Comparative Perspective and one of the assignments is to write a policy proposal on a contemporary Singapore policy issue, including issues relating to Singapore’s social service landscape. So, I’m able to directly apply what I have learnt to better shape my policy proposal,” he shared.

While he will be embarking on an overseas exchange next semester, Wesley looks forward to continuing the journey he started with these families once he is back.

Darren Chua Han Yong: In it for the long-haul

A Year 4 undergraduate student from NUS School of Computing, Darren believes that every child deserves a safe and nurturing environment to grow up in. Being able to make a direct and tangible difference in the circumstances of the families and their children is what got him interested in the ComLink Befrienders course.

“Not every volunteer opportunity allows you to work directly with the families,” he shared. “Through this course, we work with the families to come up with realistic action plans that support the families’ goals. For example, another befriender and I are involved in supporting two families take off their home-based food businesses. We created their business logos, designed promotional material and managed their social media accounts. We also meet often to sample their food and plan how to procure ingredients with the vouchers they are given. In October, the families participated in an event to promote some of their dishes. If the businesses successfully take off, it will be a huge step toward the families becoming self-reliant”.

Darren has befriended four families to-date under ComLink. While nurturing these relationships and joining group outings with ComLink families often take up his weekends or evenings, he enjoys the process, especially because he is doing it with two other friends. “It is nice that we still get to hang out with each other and do good at the same time,” he said. When Darren feels pressed for time juggling school work, co-curricular activities and volunteering, he reminds himself why he chose to become a befriender. Seeing the joy on children’s faces when they get to try McDonalds for the first time – a simple meal some may take for granted – or visit places like Sentosa motivates him to keep going.

The experience has also been enriching in ways he didn’t expect. Darren has learned to appreciate and respect cultural nuances that influence or shape people’s behavior and perspectives. He also has a deeper understanding of the various government support systems available – knowledge that will be invaluable as he continues his journey as a public ComLink befriender after he wraps up the course this year.


Making a positive impact through experiential learning

The GEN2070 ComLink Befrienders service-learning course is offered in partnership with Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), as part of the Communities and Engagement Pillar of the NUS General Education curriculum.

“What sets GEN2070 apart is that our students undergo training and reflective learning, on top of training conducted by MSF or a Social Service Officer. This helps to instill skills and values such as empathetic communication, civic consciousness as they embark on their befriending journey.

Our course tutors have also developed additional tools that students can use – for example activities such as Read Aloud and Draw and Count to guide them in helping children prepare for primary school; and we work closely with them to plan excursions with the families to interesting places. Through this, we hope to stimulate community action and do our part to strengthen the resilience for our nation,” said Pamela Yeh, Course Lead (Communities and Engagement), Department of Social Work at NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

To-date, NUS students form the largest group of volunteer befrienders from any organisation. In future, the University aims to grow this volunteer pool to 1,000 students every year, providing more opportunity for experiential learning through impactful work that positively influences the community.

To watch the GEN2070 course trailer, click here.