Refining My Compass

By Dandan Liu, PAIR Volunteer


My experience with PAIR has taught me the importance of defining one’s terms. A broad, abstract word such as “value” can mean different things to different people, and it can carry connotations that vary across cultural boundaries. So, before I identify mine, I think it’s important to define what I mean by “values.”

Here’s how I would define “values” to my students. Values are like an inner compass that guide you in your everyday life. They help you decide which actions and experiences are worth pursuing. Just as sailors use compasses to navigate their boats on the sea, our values can help us find our way if we’re lost. Our values can be refined, especially as we encounter new people, their beliefs, and unique ways of life.

When I think of my years volunteering with PAIR, three stories come to mind, because each revolves around a guiding value in my life. Here is my PAIR trilogy:


            Dandan with Global Learners Students

            Dandan with Global Learners Students

Presence. From my first day with PAIR, I had always wanted to make a difference. For the longest time, I thought this difference was made through my teaching. Whether it was explaining the importance of recycling or introducing the American holidays, if the kids understood my words and learned the lesson, then the difference was made. Last fall, however, a student named Awa* came to program looking sad and worried. I felt as if I needed to say something that would make her feel better, but the more I spoke the more I realized the futility of my words. I realized that I couldn’t teach her how to overcome what she was going through, because I had never been in her situation. Instead, I just sat with her and gave her my presence. When session ended, she gave me a big hug before she left. That’s when I gained the value of presence: being there with someone without making judgments or assumptions.

Service and appreciation. Two years ago, I was helping a sixth-grade boy named Mohamed with his math homework. He was having a lot of trouble with multiplication, so I gave him some simple addition questions to warm him up. I asked him to calculate “15+6” and he didn’t know how. I was amazed. That was really the first time I witnessed the power of circumstance. It made me wonder: what is the difference between him and me? Was it that he is a refugee? My experiences with PAIR have made me realize that the answer runs far deeper. The difference really has to do with the circumstance of birth. I did nothing to be born into a world with no political strife, one with abundant resources and opportunities. I’ve come to appreciate my circumstance as a tremendous blessing. I try to keep that in mind and express my gratitude every day. It has also shown me the fundamental responsibility of serving others born into less fortunate circumstances. To use your growth to help others reach their full potential is what I now strive for.

Love. I love PAIR students. They can be rambunctious and they can test your patience. But I see inherent goodness in each of them, even those with a hard exterior. Being with them in the past years has deepened my ability to love others. In this sense, I think the kids have impacted me just as much as I have impacted them, tuning the inner compass that will guide me from now on.

*PAIR uses pseudonyms to protect the identity of our students.