Dubai: From building schools to preserving wildlife, students at a UAE-based education group are serving communities, both within the country and abroad, while learning life skills as part of a ‘Week Without Walls’ programme.
The initiative for Grades 6 to 12 at GEMS Education schools sees pupils learn from real-life experiences.
“The idea is to take learning beyond the classroom as it helps students embrace their potential to make a difference,” said Dean Winders, Assistant Principal – Primary Personal Development, Welfare and Behaviour, GEMS World Academy – Dubai.
“The philosophy behind the Week Without Walls concept is giving students experiences that will help them become global citizens. They get to meet people from the wider world and interact with different people in different situations. It also allows them to become involved in changing and improving people’s lives.
“For example, there is a trip to Cambodia planned, where our students will get involved in building a school in a deprived area. We work with Camps International, who are very experienced in these areas. We have also organised visits to Thailand and Borneo.”
Winders added that the programme also adds weight to the students’ CAS (Creativity, Activity and Service) under the IB curriculum. “For example, as part of Week Without Walls, we offer teaching assistant services, or they can work for charity organisations such as Gulf for Good,” he added.
Barry McHugh, Extra Curricular Activities and Sports Coordinator, GEMS International School – Al Khail, said: “Within the Week Without Walls programme students get a chance to put all their learner profiles into practice, from being a risk taker when taking on new challenges, to being open-minded when learning about the cultures of other countries and people.”
He added: “This year we are offering a wide range of experiences, from international trips, to local residential trips, to day camps – there’s something to meet every student’s interests.”
Siblings in action
Emirati brother–sister duo Sofia Faghihy (Grade 11) and Saif (Grade 8) at GEMS World Academy, decided to do something constructive in their Week Without Walls programme.
Sofia has taken part in several community service experiences.
“As part of the programme I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Mahamodara Sea Turtle Hatchery Center in Sri Lanka. For one week, I supported the centre’s work to rehabilitate endangered sea turtle species by performing tasks such as renovating the centre, cleaning, refilling tanks and feeding turtles. An important element of this was educating myself and tourists visiting the centre on the importance of conserving sea turtles and other marine life,” she said.
Her brother Saif decided to follow his passion for sports.
Social media blitz
“I decided to do voluntary service with my former football club, LaLiga Academy [in the UAE]. Over five days, we formulated ideas with the primary focus on a football-themed entertainment zone called Footlab. I recommended using a variety of social media platforms to launch Footlab - it was approved. The Academy implemented my 60 short daily video ideas for 30 days on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. In addition, I did a SWOT [Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats] analysis for the indoor and outdoor pitches, as well as Footlab. I suggested features that would set the club apart from its rivals.”
As a result, the Academy gained 24,600 followers and 353,400 likes over the period.
Building classrooms and cultural bridges
An Australian student in Dubai, Mischa Sahgal, who is in Grade 10 at GEMS International School – Al Khail, said she took a trip to Tanzania.
“The trip was organised by Camps International, and the itinerary included three days of service where we repaired a classroom at a local school. During rest of the trip, we had several cultural learning experiences where we did community service like carrying water buckets on our heads and navigating some of the plantations of banana trees.”
She added: “We also spent time walking through the natural scenery in the area, exploring the nearby waterfalls and plains, with the last day being a safari where we could watch the wildlife from our carts. This part, although not technically service, helped us really appreciate the landscape we were in and experience a safari like we never had before, seeing animals unique to the region.”
American expat student Yazan Zidan, who is in Grade 9 at GEMS International School – Al Khail, travelled to Nepal as part of the programme.
“We participated in community service by helping and donating materials and supplies to a school, such as posters depicting the English alphabet and numbers. Supplies included pens, pencils, paper and various other things. We also went on field and water trips. It was an interesting experience. We also learned about the Nepalese culture and gained new knowledge and experience. I also learned to be thankful for what I have and appreciate what I have.”
Yazan added: “Overall, the experience was awesome, and if I could do it again, I would.”
A Chinese student in Dubai, Yuheng Yang, who is in Grade 11 at GEMS International School – Al Khail, said he took an opportunity to travel to Kenya, in order to help a local community.
“We spent the first two days at a local school in Tsavo building classrooms. In the afternoons, we organised football games in the field and came to see first-hand the talent in the school. Next few days we spent learning how to cook a local dessert. We visited a tribe living in mud cottages, making paper from elephant stool, and learning Swahili from our camp crew. On the final day, we went on a safari around Tsavo East. It was truly inspirational to see the hardship people endure and to experience their enthusiasm for life. I am so glad I made this trip.”
Indian expat student Arnav Sanghi, who is in Grade 11 at GEMS International School – Al Khail, went to the UK for the programme.
“The trip was focused on football, so we visited many Premier League stadiums like Wembley and The Emirates, witnessed a live game between Southampton and Watford, were part of the managerial team at Peterborough and even played the sport. The trip was for sport enthusiasts like us to experience and live in the world of football. From meeting the players, to being part of the management, we got to experience for ourselves what we had only seen on TV or learnt online.”
Arnav added: “It was unforgettable. We saw how things work backstage, like match preparations and how seamlessly different departments work together to put on a match successfully. Apart from doing everything football related, we also visited some of the famous sites in London. For me, personally, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as I witnessed my first ever Premier League game with some of my good friends.”