Highs and Lows: Testimonials
It is certain that while volunteering overseas you will experience both high points and low points. These experiences can vary enormously, and it is not uncommon for people’s experiences abroad to encompass both ends of the spectrum. High points usually centre on group interaction, intercultural learning and a sense of personal and professional achievement. Low points refer mostly to the difficulties that can arise from getting used to a different culture and different ways of working, and doubts about the actual impact of the work being undertaken.
For many people, the most enjoyable part of their placement comes from getting to know the local community, and learning from their way of life.
- A high point for Aoife was “living and working close to and within a community and culture so different to your own and seeing the smiles on the children’s and adults’ faces just for being there”;
- For Pete, high points included “participating in the group dynamics in the house we volunteers share; meeting local and overseas folk in the region – of all ages, colours and cultures – under many different circumstances”;
- Orla found that “the high point was really feeling welcome in the village, and learning from my Ugandan partner. I loved just hanging out at the house with the local kids. Also, the relationships with the other overseas volunteers (which are still just as strong now) were a really important part of the experience”;
- And for Anne, “bringing diverse ethnicities together was the ultimate aim of one project and it was really nice to see that happening and being able to play an active part in that”.
High points for Anna were “the wonderful Nepalese; the satisfaction of teaching; working with fellow, motivated individuals; the food (I hated it at first and then I grew to love it); community spirit; the pleasure of learning about a new and diverse culture; forever smiling students.”
According to Gráinne, “high points were the people I met, the small victories, learning the language, the adventure of everyday life, being involved in village life – even things like sitting around a fire helping the mamas to peel potatoes”. Eleanor found that “the high points were working with like-minded people for a cause I believed in and having the opportunity to work with the local staff and experience their culture. I also learned a lot about their work ethic”. Áine found that “the high points were the many friends and insights into local customs and culture that I gained. Seeing an improvement in the health status of malnourished children was also very important”.
The personal benefits of volunteering were highlighted by Samantha, who volunteered with GOAL in Afghanistan in 2003: “On a personal level, leadership and management skills are greatly enhanced by the work in the field, as volunteers work with challenges relating to culture and language that are rarely found at home. I certainly improved my communication skills at all levels, from liaising with large donors to drinking chai (tea) with village elders.”
However, overseas volunteering is not always a completely positive experience. Volunteers often live in conditions very different to those that they are used to at home, can be faced with issues and problems that they would never usually be confronted with, and have to deal with the realisation that they may not be able to achieve everything that they would like:
- Pete found that it was difficult to deal with the “frustrations experienced at the slow pace at which certain public and private sector individuals move to execute often simple decisions or tasks – these delays adversely impact on momentum – promises made in a friendly fashion with no follow-up performance!”
- “Motivating other teachers could be a little tedious at times,” according to Anna, who also found the language barrier frustrating.
- Gráinne had some difficulties as a result of one individual trying to profit from the work of volunteers: “The low points were having to leave the first school I was working for, as the principal was only interested in making as much money from me as he could for himself and the frustration of finding out other volunteers had felt the same but didn’t inform the agency”.
Ciara found the poverty level in Kenya difficult to adjust to: “I saw much sickness and it was frightening to notice the stark difference in my standard of living and the people I met standards’ of living. During my time as a volunteer, the people of Kenya saw me as very wealthy and thought I could solve all their problems.”
- Aoife discovered that her enthusiasm was not necessarily shared by everyone: “Sometimes you feel you are making changes for the better but only you are enthusiastic about it and only you can see the potential opportunities and benefits. The people you are doing it for can often be very unenthusiastic which can be very disillusioning.”
- Eleanor had to come to terms with the fact that the work could not necessarily achieve everything she might have hoped: “The low point was coming to the realisation that there is very little we can do in Diani that could help the Colobus monkey, as its greatest threat is development. The local community will continue to develop in similar ways to Europe hundreds of years ago. The same environmental mistakes of deforestation and pollution will continue, yet we have no authority to stop this development and deprive people of the opportunities we have enjoyed from development.”
Orla doubted how effective her work was in bringing about change: “The low point was the feeling of frustration that we couldn’t really change anything, and that we mightn’t be doing any good at all.”
Gráinne was concerned about the effectiveness of the project, as well as very mundane issues of health and security: “…the realisation that what we were doing was really too little too late, the arguing with people about life and death matters, rats, muggings”. For Áine, the low points “were the shock, isolation and loneliness felt initially as well as missing family and friends at home. The trauma and history of the place where I worked [in Rwanda] could sometimes be very difficult to deal with. Living inter-culturally could sometimes be a source of tension, as could cultural differences between the local staff and me. Being ill when so far from home was also tough”.
Finally, some people questioned the idea that volunteering is always a positive thing. For example, Anne found that “a lot of volunteering we observed seemed to be more about the Western charities looking good (and staying in existence) than really doing what was needed on the ground”. And for Lynn, there was not enough work available for her on her placement: “The little work I did do was very rewarding but this made the days where I did nothing more frustrating.”