I was very recently asked by WorldTeach to write a blog about how I would define a “successful volunteer.” This is my response based on personal experiences and observations.
I slumped down on my bed, placed my head in my hands, took a deep breath, and this is how I remained for the next few minutes. Paralysed by feelings of bewilderment and disorientation, for several moments the emotions were quite overwhelming. Five minutes prior to this I had been sat down to breakfast at a table with four Rwandan catholic nuns, whom I had met for the first time the previous evening. The bulk of the conversation was carried out in French, and thus I spent the majority of the meal straining my ears and anxiously hoping that in the depths of my mind there remained some knowledge of the language that I had ceased studying eight years earlier. Once breakfast was over I made the short walk back to my house to encounter what was undoubtedly a defining moment. I found all I could do was sit there, still. The silence was intense, suffocating almost. Where was I? Who were these people? Why am I here? What do I do next? Why is there no water coming out of the taps?
The answers to these and many other questions revealed themselves at regular points throughout the proceeding weeks and months, and as they did so they provided me with a reassuring clarity and logic. I was a volunteer teacher at St Bernadette de Save, a secondary school in the small, Rwandan village of Save, and I was there for a very important reason; this was what I had chosen to do. In my opinion one of the crucial factors in being a “successful” volunteer is having a firm desire and a clear reason and purpose for wanting to do it. I say this because there are certainly times when you stop and question particular aspects of the experience, and there are times when you feel like you may crumble under the weight of the challenge. However, in constantly reminding yourself of exactly why this path was taken, and the motivations that drove you to pursue it, you never lose sight of what an incredibly rewarding and significant phase in your life it is and always will be.
In my own case the WorldTeach Rwanda program was perfect. I had spent one whole summer crammed into a small wooden booth in my university library, reading countless books and writing a thesis on the role of gender in the 1994 genocide. It was here a fascination with the tiny country was born. Three years later I landed in Kigali and during the first two weeks I and my fellow volunteers visited two significant genocide memorials. Personally this signalled the end of one journey and the beginning of another. The impact of the genocide became abundantly clear to me in a manner that books hadn’t been able to fully reflect, and as the year progressed I would experience several further moments of similar magnitude. For example, on one occasion a student of mine revealed he had lost his father, three brothers, and two sisters during the country’s darkest hour. His story was not uncommon, but as I became exposed to the new, recovering Rwanda, I was overwhelmed by the strength and courage people showed, and subsequently inspired by their resolve and determination.
There is no rigid blueprint for producing a “successful volunteer”. Success varies for each person, and it is therefore almost impossible to form a conclusive definition of what exactly it means. Duck now if you want to avoid being struck by a gigantic cliché, but volunteering is a journey of self-discovery and an exploration of your personality, and for each person this will inevitably vary. However, from my experiences in Rwanda, Bangladesh, and now Guyana, I believe there are core attributes one must possess if they are to live life as an international volunteer to its fullest. No one person or moment can dictate your experience, and it’s up to you to decide how it will define you in the present, and even more crucially, the future.
Adaptability is vital. Your routine and comfort zones will be thrown on their head, and there’s only one way to deal with this…embrace it! I have constantly been amazed at how far we can push ourselves and how strong the human mind and body is capable of coping with change. In Rwanda, the initial panic of discovering no water would ever trickle from the taps in my house was soon replaced with the exhilarating feeling that came from donning a head torch and collecting rainwater in a bucket at 11pm at night. The shock felt when told by my Headmistress I was the new Entrepreneurship teacher at St. Bernadette de Save was forgotten almost instantly upon meeting my students. I realised there was so much I would learn from them. Being receptive to change and unpredictability is a must, and the results always bring great fulfilment.
A successful volunteer will be sure to pack an abundance of respect and open-mindedness in their suitcase. Although sounding obvious, it can be surprisingly easy to lose sight of these two closely connected and vital attributes when faced with situations and scenarios that place you far from your comfort zone. In my role at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, I witnessed precisely how paramount respect and open-mindedness is. Hundreds of students brought together from 12 different countries across Asia. Many of whom have left their families for the very first time to study in a country and city in complete contrast to their homes. Yet, the manner by which these students face and embrace this colossal change, demonstrates perfectly that by recognizing and positively accepting cultural contrasts and distinctions, we are far more able to build meaningful and positive relationships in the long term.
Finally, I will offer one piece of advice to any prospective volunteers out there. Prior to leaving home and embarking on the wonderful journey that awaits you; find a large box, cram all of your expectations inside, padlock it, and hide it away in a deep, dark wardrobe. You won’t need them where you’re going! Expectations are inevitable, but they have the potential to lead only to disillusionment or frustration under the weight of a pre-defined pressure. The excitement that comes from the unknown is what makes international volunteerism so very special and significant. If you approach it with an open mind, a willingness to learn and to accept, and an attitude of determination and hope, you emerge at the end of it a wiser and healthier person.
The title of this blog is a quote by Lorna Wilson.