A Conversation with … Felipe Vacas

Felipe Vacas contributed to the founding of an NHS chapter at Colegio Menor—a large, private, international school in Quito, Ecuador. He ran the chapter for five years, during which time the school won the NHS Outstanding Service Project award twice. After being promoted to dean of students, Vacas oversaw both NHS and NJHS at Colegio Menor. Last year, Vacas moved to Shenzhen, China, where he and colleagues founded NHS and NJHS chapters—which Vacas currently advises—at BASIS International School Shenzhen. Vacas also serves the school as a science teacher.

Advise: You’ve founded Honor Society chapters in two very different locales. What would you say were your biggest challenges in getting the ball rolling, and how did you overcome them? 

Vacas: I would say that in both situations it became a great challenge because just a few knew about the true meaning of starting a National Honor Society chapter. The biggest challenge was convincing the community that these groups were not only created to award high academic achievers, but mainly to make a group of living examples of service, scholarship, character, leadership, and even citizenship. At the beginning, these groups had a hard time being understood. However, this ends when their amazing work in service of others starts to shine.

Advise: What did winning the Outstanding Service Project award mean to your chapter? 

Vacas: It was just wonderful—a powerful spark that kept us working even harder in the coming years. How amazing it is when you get recognized for something you love doing! As one of the chapters outside the U.S., it just felt great to be seen by all the world. In Ecuador, there is so much to do for others in need; our chapter sometimes felt powerless. However, it is because of awards like these that we keep in mind that our projects, as small as they might seem, make a real difference—not only for the people we directly help, but also for ourselves and for the ones that follow our example. This year, we came out with two great projects in China, one with NHS and the other with NJHS. Let’s see if they make it to those wonderful recognitions, too. It would mean a lot for these kids. Although their greatest award was, in both situations, to see the smiles and gratefulness of the people we helped.

Advise: What made you decide to go to Ecuador then make such a big move to China? 

Vacas: I love adventure and challenge! I have times in my life when I need to move and recharge with global energy. Our world is immense and tiny at the same time, and I wanted to prove that. It was great to see that when you go beyond the cultural and geographical differences of such distant societies, kids are just as eager to help others and to be living examples for the rest. It was not hard at all to convince my Chinese group of kids that serving others was worth doing.

Advise: What value can students gain from acting locally but thinking globally? How important is global awareness to their lives? 

Vacas: Well, I strongly believe that we are born as part of a community, and we are who we are thanks to all we received from our parents, school, and people who live close to us. We need to be grateful and pay back all we were given by serving them. However, we also need to acknowledge that we live in a world full of differences and beliefs. We are all humans, and in order to achieve mutual understanding, we need to put into practice our core values all summarized into one word: respect. Being part of a global organization such as NHS or NJHS gives our students the opportunity to gain an important piece toward this objective, which, no matter where they come from, points toward the same direction—making the world a better place.

Advise: What do you believe is the best way to encourage today’s students? 

Vacas: I believe real and meaningful encouragement comes from the thankful expressions and words of those we reach through our projects. Those smiles and tears never get erased from our memories and act as energy for working toward the next projects. I am not saying it is not nice and fair for students to receive a diploma, a medal, or even a pizza party. However, to mark their hearts with the powerful feeling of having done things right is just priceless.

Advise: What is the best way to keep advisers motivated, especially those who are just starting out?

Vacas: Wow, good question. I know this is tough at the beginning. It is easy for teachers to decide to remain in their safe classrooms where they do not have to deal with planning projects and challenging students to step outside of their comfort zones. However, what I use is my personal experience. I motivate them by telling them the truth, how wonderful it feels to serve others, and even more, to inspire students to serve others and see them enjoy it with all their hearts. It just takes patience and lots of words of encouragement. A “thank you” and “good job” gesture from the school can also help an adviser. Nothing is perfect at the beginning. However, when things start to work out, it becomes very rewarding.

Advise: Is there a considerable difference in “personality” and dynamics between your Ecuador chapters and your Chinese ones? Is anything universal?

Vacas: At the beginning of my year in China, I was starting to get a little frustrated because everything seemed so different. However, when you get deep into the hearts of the students, you realize they are just the same. Core values are universal, no matter where you come from, or what you believe in. They all know how to be respectful and care for others. In Ecuador, a small, developing country, most kids are constantly exposed to others in need of help, so it seems more natural for them to participate in these kinds of activities. We get experience on our side. However, sometimes this can become counterproductive as they might lose the impact of what is usually new and unexpected. In the school in China, the situation was the opposite. Kids were almost new to the idea of community service (which has a lot of local governmental regulations), but they were really willing to do it. [They were] inexperienced, but amazed to see the powerful effects, and it just made a big change in their hearts. In the end, the energy of the youth, which is the same everywhere, made the chapters similar.

Advise: Please share your fondest memories from your time advising NHS and NJHS. 

Vacas: I could write a book about my fondest memories leading these groups. I am just going to briefly point out a few, as my mind remembers how my life changed through all those years.

  • Traveling to very deep places in the Ecuadorian cloud forests and highlands to set up a moving flea market and visit schools with a show about self-care and hygiene.
  • Having my Chinese students stand up in front of a group of refugees to talk and sing, and then serve food and give them hope.
  • Seeing the NJHS members in Shenzhen cheerfully leading the most successful walk-a-thon ever in the school.
  • Every time I have received a thank-you message from a former NHS member.