RSIS Projects – Self-discovery through service to others

Posted: 23 January 2024

Each year, in July and December, Round Square runs a two-week International Service (RSIS) Project for students aged 16-18 from Round Square Schools across the world.

RSIS Projects involve students working together as a team, closely in partnership with a developing community somewhere in the world. They follow a process of action and reflection, building students’ understanding of the needs of a partner community and involving them in a practical project to addresses those needs.

RSIS Projects are more than just educational excursions; they are transformative journeys that inspire character building and social-emotional development through shared purpose.

The December 2023 RSIS Project brought together 59 students of 17 nationalities from 22 schools, to work together in the Kui Buri National Park in Southern Thailand. The project had an environmental focus, with some students working with elephants and studying hornbills in a human/ wildlife co-existence project, and others taking on a big-build, working together to construct a community education centre out of mud cobbs with their bare hands.

Their living facilities were basic, and daily-life stripped back to simple-living. Students camped and ate outside, washed in rain-bucket style showers, and did their laundry in a tub with biodegradable soap. They took it in turn to lead each day of the Project themselves, and every day ended with student leaders receiving constructive feedback, before passing on the role to another team member.

A key feature of RSIS Projects is that students do not have access to their digital devices, and have no direct contact with home. They are transported to a different part of the world, surrounded by new people their own age, from different countries and cultures, and immersed in an experience focused entirely on being present and taking action.

This can be unnerving and uncomfortable for some students at first, but invariably becomes a very positive experience by the end. A student on the RSIS Thailand Project felt that, “I have become more independent and I’m not just relying on my phone so much for everything.  I think I’m becoming more self-aware, recognizing my own strengths and weaknesses, what I’m good at, what I’m not.  And recognizing when I need help and how to ask for it.”

Another student told us, “I think it’s so good to have a detox. Going back, I’m definitely not going to use it as much. It’s not a necessity. I don’t need it. And I feel so much better not looking at my screen, wasting time that could be spent communicating with people. It’s opened my eyes.” During the project, participants learn that they can survive without digital devices and social media, and rediscover a love of card and parlour games, inventive, improvised play, singing, laughter and chatter.

During the RSIS Thailand Project, having got over the initial anxiety, the students experienced immediate benefits from this enforced digital detox. For example, one shared that she discovered the beauty of taking photographs, with a camera, to capture a moment as a memory for herself, rather than taking them with a phone, to share online, as part of a story presented for a virtual audience. Another student commented that rather than being an observer of life, and a commentator, through social media, they felt they were actively engaged and living in the present, something that they had not felt for a long time. Another shared that “being without a phone pushed me to start the conversation,” and told us, “I wouldn’t have done that before. I would’ve just gone to my phone instead of talking to new people. The earphone is like a safety blanket when you’re around new people. So, once that taken away, you have no choice but to really step out and start talking to people.”

These experiences chime with much that has been written, in recent times, about the benefits of digital detox and the need to counter the impacts of social media on young people. Jean Twenge, in her book “iGen,” argues that today’s teens, having grown up with constant access to the internet, living their lives increasingly online, have built a sense of connectedness that is, in reality, only superficial, and masks a crisis waiting to happen. She writes, “iGen’ers look so happy online, making goofy faces on Snapchat and smiling in their pictures on Instagram. But dig deeper, and reality is not so comforting. iGen is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades. On the surface, though, everything is fine.”

This is a very new problem, perhaps, but also one that has echoes into the past. Kurt Hahn, whose philosophies on education led to the creation of the Round Square Network, in the 1960s, spoke then of the need to take preventative action to combat the “poisonous effects inherent in present-day civilization.” Hahn believed that the fast-paced, changing fabric of modern life, even then, was having a detrimental impact, and referred to “the 6 declines of youth”, which included the decline of fitness, initiative, memory, skill, self-discipline, and compassion. His call for preventative action advocated for mental and physical fitness, challenging tasks, skill development through action, and the engagement in direct service.

Hahn’s principles of preventative action, though voiced in a different era about a different generation, remain profoundly relevant today. The challenges faced by the iGen may be unique to their time, but they mirror the concerns Hahn voiced more than 50 years ago. Programmes such as Round Square International Service Projects offer a practical opportunity for students to put down their devices and focus, for a time, on making personal connections, and building their character.

As one participant put it “It’s good to come into a place where I knew nobody. And I’m able to form relationships, all these interpersonal relationships, with people who are able to communicate effectively. I think it’s really nice to be able to step into a new place and be more courageous, to have a bigger outlook on the way that you communicate and interact with people. These are skills that I have gained.”

But what happens next? At the end of two weeks on the RSIS Project camp in Thailand, there was genuine reluctance as students queued for their phones. They reflected on how they would manage their devices going forward, perhaps a culling of their Apps, perhaps setting boundaries – both as settings and as behaviours. Collectively they agreed that they had grown in confidence, found courage they didn’t think they had, and developed relationships that were more plentiful, diverse, and multi-layered.

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