Yee Lam, a junior studying materials engineering, skipped a week of sun during spring break this year to teach without pay in Washington, D.C.’s elementary and middle schools as part of Teach for America, President Clinton’s national service initiative.

“One child was transferred to another school that week because both his parents had been shot. Another child was physically abused. The school had no equipment in the labs and no computers, and you had to go through a metal detector to be checked for weapons.

“I’d never experienced anything like that. Throughout my life, I’d lived in middle-class suburbia,” says Lam, adding that the trip not only opened her eyes, but made her a more grateful person.

“Some people think that one man’s effort doesn’t mean much in this world,” she says, “but even if all you do is make one child happier, that’s a big difference. Reaching anybody is enough.”

This year Lam organized a group of 12 MIT students to teach in Washington public schools. The goal of Teach for America is that one day all U.S. children will have the opportunity to attain a top education.

Since the start of Alternative Spring Break at MIT four years ago, students have taught in inner-city schools in Washington, D.C., Newark, and Baltimore. Others have worked for Habitat for Humanity, helping to build houses for low-income families. Some students have gone on environmental trips, and others have gone camping in the woods with kids from Brooklyn. Ninety MIT students participated in the program this year and went on nine trips to four countries.

“The school in D.C. was almost all African-American,” Lam says. “I walked down the hall and everyone turned and stared at me. They had never seen an Asian person before. It wasn’t a negative experience. It was just like a child’s curiosity. As a minority female, I felt I could say, ‘It wasn’t always easy for me, but I’m in college and you can do it, too.’

“Many of them never knew anyone who went to college before. I feel I gave them encouragement and in that way made a difference in their lives. Many of them asked me, ‘How do I become a materials engineer, too?'”

Giving of herself

This was the third year in a row that Lam had participated in Alternative Spring Break. By giving of herself, she says, she got much in return.

“I’m not perfect. As much as I’d like to be more generous, sometimes I am selfish. Teaching changed my perspective. I’ve seen that a little can mean a lot. Now I’m more willing to give up my time, attention, or money if it means more to someone else.”

Lam says she now realizes how small her problems are compared to those of some children. “I became more appreciative of what I have,” she says.

“The students made me see more clearly what I value and to treasure it more. Now I show more appreciation for the people I love.

“It’s very idealistic to think I could affect a person’s life forever, but just doing one thing to help makes me feel I could make a small difference in someone’s life.

“One child was very bright. She paid attention and asked good questions. I asked her where she wanted to go to college, and she said she doubted she could get in.

“She’d never been told that she could achieve. I had been told that I could achieve anything. My parents and teachers told me, ‘You can do whatever you want, as long as you put your mind to it.’ It made me think a lot more about how lucky I am.”

Lam says that she easily could have spent spring break on a beach, “but this meant more to me than a nice tan.

“It taught me that life takes initiative. Now, I’d like to do service for the rest of my life,” she says. “There’s a lot of inertia in getting started, but there’s so many programs begging for people to help, all you have to do is say, ‘I’m willing.'”