Many friends know that I was an international volunteer in Kenya, East Africa for more than nine months from 2013 to 2014. There are enough articles online about how fulfilling the experience is, and that’s not the point of this piece.
I was asked an interesting question during the Q&A session after a lecture last week. The question was, “I also want to travel to Africa to be an international volunteer, but I want to know if you stand by the perspectives in the recent article, “Nine Reasons You Shouldn’t Volunteer Abroad”, posted on your company’s website.”
Let’s not talk about how I responded first. But the first thing that came to my mind after reading the piece was what I went through to get a job after coming back from Africa.
I had already made up my mind to work in the media industry. Even though I majored in Chemistry as an undergrad and went on to obtain an MBA degree, I had accumulated a fair amount of written work during my time in school and Africa. With the help of many alumni, my resume reached the desk of a few magazine editors I was interested in working for.
Nothing. I waited for more than a month and even started randomly sending resumes to major media outlets, but still got no reply.
In my despair, I asked a friend who was working at a well-known magazine if a senior employee or human resource could take a look at my resume and give me some feedback. Maybe I had missed something or made some kind of mistake.
Surprisingly, the comment I got was, “You have a really good resume. But that’s the problem. It’s ‘too’ good.”
Later on, I had an opportunity to chat with the editor-in-chief of a social enterprise and regained a lot of courage. Soon after, I finally got my first job offer at a magazine, even though it was only a part-time position.
It was later did I come to realize what my resume being too good meant. (Of course there are many possibilities I wasn’t called in for an interview, such as there weren’t any openings, I just wasn’t the perfect candidate, there were better contenders, and so on…) But standing in the shoes of a company, what they’re mostly looking for is steady labor, meaning mostly loyal and obedient employees.
A runaway has the blood of a rebel, so there’s no need to mention the weak connection between what we obtain as international volunteers and job requirements. The experiences that friends and family think are cool, idealistic, and unique are most probably the very characteristics a manager avoids. (No company wants to spend time nurturing an employee only to have them leave.)
There are a few annoying questions people constantly ask me, but I’m only going to talk about two.
Question one: Why volunteer internationally? Isn’t help needed in Taiwan?
I’m constantly asked this question. It’s one I have been asking myself ever since I started planning to travel to Kenya, reached Africa, and came back to Taiwan. It’s not that I don’t have an answer, but rather I genuinely consider it a question worth contemplating repeatedly.
First of all, I believe that regardless of you being the person asking or answering this question, you need to clarify one thing; there’s almost always the assumption, “Being a volunteer is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, right? If it is, then why help foreigners instead of your own people?”
So what if this was my first time being a volunteer? It doesn’t mean it’s the last. Why can’t I choose to become an international volunteer first? We still have lots of time and energy in the future to lend Taiwan a hand, and if so, the hypothesis mentioned above might not stand.
Moreover, if we focus on the word, international, isn’t volunteering overseas actually a kind of traveling abroad? There are many kinds of traveling abroad: tourism, studying, working, working holidays, and so on. And being an international volunteer is nothing more than an example of going overseas. So part of this question is actually asking:
“The only thing you’re looking to do is see how big the world is, learn to be independent, practice different languages, or even have something to add to your resume. Are you sure you want to become an international volunteer?”
Question two: Does becoming a volunteer actually help the locals?
We’re done talking about the international part of being an international volunteer, so let’s talk about the volunteer bit.
I have to be honest here. The word, volunteer, has always been overrated to me. It’s supposed to mean a group of people who willingly arrive somewhere to work and help out; but in fact, it more often represents temporary, selfish, arrogant, and condescending.
Being a volunteer often means paying it forward temporarily (even a year isn’t necessarily considered as a long period of time). If someone is there permanently, then people don’t consider the person as a volunteer. That’s the catch. Volunteers are meant to resolve local issues, which usually aren’t simple ones. How is it possible for them to fix these problems in a short amount of time?
Aside from wanting to aid others, how much selfishness goes into this ideal? Many volunteers wish to gain more global perspectives, find themselves, and fulfill dreams. But where do the locals fit into all this? Or are we just going to another country based on self-interest and using the word, volunteer, to package ourselves?
Finally, from the moment we decide to help others as a volunteer, we are already using a superior attitude to judge their issues. They are the underprivileged that are beneath us, and therefore they need us to assist them. But how can we relate to these people if bearing this mentality? Is it possible what we thought was the antidote only cures the symptom but not the disease? Or is there even the chance that our pompous service actually causes more complications after we leave?
Circling back, how I answered the question asked during the Q&A session doesn’t seem that important anymore. My experience as an international volunteer did me no good in getting a job (it probably had the opposite effect). But if speaking of how volunteering overseas affected my current job and future plans, I can say with confidence that the experience probably changed my entire life. If the job I was looking for is a profession, then I have already accepted the best offer there is.
But this is my story. Your story is waiting for you to tell.
Translated by Olivia Yang