Cosmopolitan. Stylish. Wealthy. That’s the impression one receives when walking the crowded streets of Hong Kong.
But Austin Yang ’19 knows there is more to the city than just its robust, never-ending commercial spaces. “As a tourist, you’re only seeing what’s on the ground level,” he says. “You have to look up. Poverty is right above you.”
As one of the Glavin Global Fellows, a group of Babson students who are passionate about global issues, Yang was awarded a grant to travel to Hong Kong during spring break. Students like Yang are awarded these grants so they can pursue international or multicultural projects.
“It’s really interesting the projects students choose,” says Lorien Romito, a senior director in Babson’s Glavin Office of International Education who oversees the Glavin Global Fellows. “The projects are something the students are passionate about or have a question about, and they feel empowered to go off and explore those issues.”
Yang wanted to learn more about overcrowded living spaces in Hong Kong. The city is one of the most expensive housing markets in the world, but many of its residents don’t make enough money to find adequate homes. So they are crammed together in one of the city’s many tall buildings, living in spaces so small they are known as “coffin homes.”
“Right above are some of the worst living conditions in the world,” Yang says. “I was always looking up, wondering what was going on up there. At the end of the day, my neck would hurt.”
Glavin Global Fellows grants have taken students all over the world. Students have worked at a refugee camp in Greece, explored press freedom in Doha, Qatar, looked at street art in Rome, and, in the U.S., filmed a documentary investigating the lack of clean drinking water in Flint, Michigan.
The roots of Yang’s investigation of Hong Kong’s housing began with a prior trip to the city. “I marveled at how beautiful, efficient, and mega Hong Kong is,” he says.
When he returned to the U.S., however, he began reading about Hong Kong’s poverty, about the roughly 200,000 people who live in claustrophobic, subdivided spaces with shared bathrooms. “I was thinking, ‘How could I miss this?’” he says. “I was blind to it.”
Yang was raised in California, but his family is originally from Hong Kong. He wondered where he would have lived if they had never left the city. “I would probably be one of those people living in a coffin home or other cramped space.”
Wanting to learn more, he applied for a Glavin grant and returned to Hong Kong. This time, he looked beyond the city’s glitz, wandering all around Hong Kong and speaking to people about their experiences.
He realized how important the city’s many well-kept parks are to its poor residents. They spend many hours there playing chess, running, practicing tai chi, and talking with one another. “That’s an outlet for people,” Yang says. “They live in such crammed places. The only way to get some fresh air is to go to these parks.”
Beyond providing grants, the Glavin Global Fellows program offers other international and multicultural opportunities, including a living-learning community for first-year students and a certificate for graduating students that demonstrates their commitment to global education and language learning.
“Our hope is that, once students graduate, they are able to reflect on what being a global citizen means to them,” Romito says.
Yang is grateful for the grant he received and for the many other international experiences he has had at Babson. Looking up at the crowded spaces of Hong Kong made him reflect on his own life. “It taught me to appreciate how much we have here in the United States,” he says.
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