Why do people volunteer? Is it for the volunteers personal benefit? Is to make a difference to other people’s lives, tackle extreme poverty, save the environment or help endangered species? Volunteering gives you a chance to help rebuild communities, teach and educate, help develop infrastructure in communities suffering from extreme poverty. But is it really you doing the teaching? Volunteering is a great opportunity to see the world, experience different cultures and meet some fantastic people. You develop as a person, become more confident, creative and innovative; all key skills employers will ask you at interview.
I spent three months volunteering in rural South East India. My reasons for going were varied. I’ve always had a fascination with places and people. I love travelling and exploring new places and so volunteering had always appealed to me. I had always pushed it aside in favour of university and a career. However the opportunity arose when I found myself in my first ‘proper’ job in London. I had recently graduated and without any solid idea of a career path had applied to a huge variety of jobs. This was the first to respond and I accepted. I soon realised it wasn’t for me. In desperation after failing to find an alternative, more appealing job, I applied to volunteer for three months abroad. I could think of nothing better than spending three months somewhere completely removed from home and all the pressures of pursuing careers. It also presented a great opportunity to have a major switch in career paths. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made.
I taught young people in schools on the importance of team work, confidence, leadership. Helped them to realise the huge variety in careers both vocational and academic. We took computer classes, held health workshops and held a day long event on gender equality to mark international women’s day. But the most important thing we did was provide a safe and fun learning environment for the local children. We transformed our resource building into a youth centre, playing games with the children, encouraging them to read the books, engaging with them. It was a special moment when we witnessed children sprinting down the street after school to get to our building as fast as they could. There is no doubt that we achieved something great.
Yet I’m sure that I ended up learning more about myself than I did make a long lasting difference in these children’s futures. The India culture is truly amazing. It is a culture of positivity, of friendliness, of complete generosity. Yet it suffers from such widespread poverty, such a lack of infrastructure and incredible inequality that it will be a long time before any significant changes happen in my particular community. I gained a new perspective. I learnt more from the people I met than I could ever teach in three months. And these lessons will no doubt transfer themselves into skills employers will love. When I get offered an interview I’m sure some of the first questions will be about my time overseas.
Yes, over time, I have no doubt that the volunteering currently happening across the world will and does have a long lasting, positive affect on many people. Yet for me, as much as I had planned and dreamed of making am immediate difference in my little Indian community, they ended up having a much greater impact on me.