After a four-hour drive through highways and steep winding roads, our students arrived at the Xitou Nature Education Center greeted by cool mountain air and afternoon mist.  Untouched and boundless, the forest seemingly goes on forever.  Ancient trees stretch towards the sky, ferns and moss cover the ground, waterfalls stream down from the peaks, and abundant wildlife make this beautiful place their home.  Enthusiastic visitors of all ages regularly arrive by the busloads, decked out in hiking gear and bird-watching equipment, ready to explore.

Xitou is known in Taiwan as a summer resort.  For our Scholars, this was their temporary home and classroom.  In this beautiful and restorative environment, Scholars and guests were encouraged to experience and appreciate nature, build new friendships, and meditate on environmental sustainability.  Taking advantage of the unique setting, a series of morning workshops were held to focus the students on their personal development.

At a plant nursery, our students worked together with hoes and spades to prepare soil for sowing.  Exhausted and covered in mud, they went away with the satisfaction of planting saplings that would one day become tall trees.  They also had a newfound respect for agriculture. “I will not take food for granted again,” said Bing Yuen, a Malaysian AFLSP Scholar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.  “I didn’t know how hard it was to grow food.”

In a woodworking class, students crafted special lamps out of local sustainable wood, which they sanded and polished themselves.  After completing their creations, everyone was taken to “experience” a beautiful large-scale piece of woodwork: a double arched gingko wood bridge that took 3 years to build.

Perhaps the most gratifying of these activities was the tree-climbing workshop.  After a quick lesson on identifying and avoiding dead branches, the participants strapped on their rope harnesses and pulled themselves up seven-story tall coniferous trees.  Anxiety and trepidation disappeared with the loud encouragement of their peers below.  As the climbers reached new altitudes, they were rewarded with breathtaking views of the Fenghuang Mountain Range in the distance.

“I’ve always been afraid of heights but I was able to overcome my fears,” said Benjamin Trnka, a Yenching Scholar from Peking University.  “I really enjoyed looking at the forest ferns high up on the branches.”

At locations all across Xitou, including the iconic University Pond, team-building activities and often-hilarious games were held to encourage students to develop group skills and build trust.  Meanwhile in the conference room of Red Tower, Angela Cheung, Managing Director of Asia Pacific Vision, gave a series of public speaking workshops that equipped students with effective presentation skills.  With a new awareness about body language, how to make an intentional first impression and other key communication skills, the students were reinvigorated with a confidence to be themselves.

Many significant moments also occurred outside of the organized activities.  Students spontaneously engaged in conversations over group meals, card games, excursions to nearby Monster Village, and hikes around the forest’s many trails.  Participants asked each other about respective passions and cultural practices, openly listening to new viewpoints and personal stories.  Disagreements led to further discourse, understanding and appreciation of their differences.  The growing camaraderie is remarkable given the wide array of nationalities and backgrounds.

We wrapped up our stay in Xitou with an environmental panel with three inspiring experts and entrepreneurs.  Dr. Hsiao-Wei Yuan showcased her work on the restoration of the Wu-Wei Harbor Wetland refuge and her research in regional bird ecology.  Ms. Marine Thomas followed by explaining conservation and practices already undertaken in Hong Kong.  Finally, Ms. Shahara Alexander shared about her permaculture work in Hong Kong, describing the benefits of community-supported agriculture (CSA) models and sustainable ecology.

A lively panel discussion followed where speakers took questions from the audience.  Many thought-provoking questions were raised, including whether or not environmental responsibility would be feasible for disadvantaged people, and if man-made global warming could ever be reversed.  The speakers acknowledged they that while difficult, environmental sustainability would indeed be possible if everyone stayed close with nature, consistently reduced waste, and moved to a plant-based diet.

We hope that the learning opportunities given to our Summer Program participants in the past week have planted seeds in their hearts and minds so that they will keep beautiful places like Xitou flourishing for generations to come.