Students without borders tackle common community problems
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 – shorthand for "generation of dreamers."
Established in 2019, the program seeks to unite high-school students from both countries in tackling common problems in areas such as health, education and the environment. Their solutions not only benefit society but may also be money-spinners.
"GenDream has improved my outlook because I can now say with full confidence that our generation is fully capable of providing innovative products and services, promoting sustainability and giving hope for the future," said Texas participant Vyoma Patel. "Our generation has ideas, creativity and energy."
Shen Hehe, program co-executive director, said: "One word to describe GenDream is 'diverse.' Diverse in backgrounds and geographic locations; diverse in topics that various teams explore."
Shen graduated from Harvard University with a degree in government affairs and formerly led Business Development and Partnerships on the virtual events platform Run the World. She joined GenDream in 2019 as one of its founding coaches.
"Based on my educational experience, I take advantage of multicultural education," said Shen, 27.
"When I read news about the tense relationship between China and the US, I often get emotional. This is not the world that I knew when I was a high-school student. I want to build a bridge between teenagers of the two countries."
The program was initiated by a group of young professionals with multicultural backgrounds and experience 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 yield both profits and social good."
Four sessions have been held with 57 participants from more than 20 cities across China and the US. Each session lasts for 12 weeks. During the period, participants identify problems in their communities, create user research, develop prototypes, collect user feedback and show their results on what is called Demo Day.
The participants are guided by experienced coaches, who include an interaction designer at LinkedIn, a product manager at Microsoft, startup founders and academics.
"Our program coaches are volunteer-based," said Shen. "They are passionate about cross-border culture and want to devote their time to sharing knowledge."
Apart from program coaches, there are also peer coaches who facilitate group discussion and provide support.
The 2020 winter session coincided with COVID-19 epidemic. The participants created two projects related to the global health crisis. One addressed the digital divide in remote education; the other created a contactless delivery service for senior citizens.
Last summer, the GenDream program produced ideas aimed at addressing issues such as education access, gender equality, and health and wellness.
The participants also enjoy favorite activities together, like virtual workouts, sharing cooking pictures and singing.
"I have been taking Chinese language lessons at school, but I have never met anyone from China," said participant Jack McDonnell from San Francisco. "This program allowed me to get to know my peers from the other side of the world at a personal level, regardless of what I hear in the news."
Wang Haoran, 18
While studying at the Shanghai Foreign Language School Affiliated to Shanghai International Studies University, Wang Haoran participated in the 2020 winter session of GenDream.
As a result of the pandemic at the time, many schools switched to online learning. After finding out that Internet access was a common issue for underprivileged students in both countries, he and his teammates built a website called InterAction to enable easy access to online education resources and faster Internet services.
The website includes tips for improving existing Internet connections, lists places like coffee shops that offer free Internet access and disseminates information on Internet providers.
Q: Why do you want to join the program?
GenDream builds a bridge between young people in China and the US. I want to change people's views on the relationship between the two countries. Besides, I have been always passionate about participating in social work. The program coincided with the onset of the epidemic. My school closed, and all the offline activities were canceled. With GenDream, I was able to keep contributing to society online.
Q: GenDream's core principle is social entrepreneurship. What does that mean to you?
It's a way to start a startup that focuses not only on short-term monetary gains, important as they are, but also on long-term impact on societal, cultural and environmental issues that affect everyday 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 gain public funding – which I did for my Special Olympics Basketball Studio – but also started to shift my focus to important issues that often go unnoticed by most people. I dedicated myself to helping to achieve education equality.
Ada Yu, 17
Ada Yu has been involved in GenDream since its first session and now acts as a peer coach voluntarily. She is a Chinese-American who lives in Boxford, Massachusetts, where Asians account for 2 percent of about 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 teammates online, tackling the issue of access to digital education. She parlayed the connectivity she learned to create a bilingual medical communication tool called the LangBridge Communication Board to address the language barrier in emergency medical treatment.
Q: What are your views about the cultural differences in China and the US?
They are often very interesting. For example, one day we were talking about sex education. In the United States, people see this as quite normal, but some of our peers in China told us there are still stigmas and discrimination surrounding sex education. (A team of GenDream participants tackled this issue by creating a website providing sex education through the perspective of art.)
I also found that cultural differences exist not only across different countries but also in different cities here in the US. I am in Boston now and some of the participants are in California. I see cultural differences between us as well.
Q: It's your fourth return to the program, and you have acted as a volunteer peer coach three times. Why is that?
GenDream has become more than just a program. It has become my family. Building our prototypes and speaking with other members from both US and China have given me a new understanding of the two cultures and shown me the value of diverse perspectives. It is this cross-language and cultural interaction that motivates me to return every session.
It would be wrong to label GenDream as purely a meet-and-greet of young students with a heart for community services or as purely a social entrepreneurship masterclass. It draws the best from both of these areas, creating an immersive, eye-opening experience that has 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 sophomore year, I was new to the concept of social entrepreneurship. Having not taken any business classes at school, I was also new to the world of business. The step-by-step lectures given by the experienced coaches gave me a comprehensive overview of the process of building social enterprise.