What I learnt from joining international volunteer activities

For the past year, I had two opportunities to participate in two “international volunteer trips”, both with STEP Forward Exchange, and experienced two sides of the spectrum: as a volunteer and as a host. You asked me the reason why, I, like any other young adults, was so lost with my life that I wanted an escape. And till this day I still think that I had made a wonderful choice.

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Let’s start with my first volunteer trip abroad as a regular participant in Sri Lanka.

Doesn’t the sound of the country so intriguing to you? At least it was to me. We spent about ten days in the countryside and did all kind of works, from mixing concrete to decorating temples. For God’s sake I did not know I was strong until I realized I was the only girl who could help carry a 50-kg concrete bag. But let’s put it aside and talk about what I learned during the trip.

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First of all, please know what you get yourself into. Do you know what kind of work you will be doing? Do you know anything about the team you will be working and technically living with? If your answers to both questions are No, you are staying home… I’m just kidding, please still go. You know what you should expect now, and when challenges come, they come with no surprises. Do not let it stop you!

Second, I wanted to talk about teamwork. I hated teamwork in college and I can imagine lots of you are nodding with me, but this is not the same. Living with strangers is hard, living with strangers while being tired is even harder. However, I learned how to live responsibly and how to look after others during that short time. Look at what kind of crowd you are going with. For Sri Lanka, my team was all working people. Therefore we all knew how to live with others in a calm and mature manner. I saw them waking up early, taking a cup of hot black tea, either helping with breakfast or simply just reading a book waiting for the time to come. Fortunately, they were the team I was looking for at that moment. I heard so many wise advices and life mottos from them and after the trip, we became good friends. We now still meet once in a while to catch up. Believe me, after days of living and working and seeing each other at the worst stages and still decide to be friends, you gained yourself long-time friends. Last but not least, I had time to take a look inside my mind.

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In Sri Lanka, I decided to not purchase a sim card and 3G. So my phone is literally a camera, no more no less. I think it did me wonders. I stepped away from the busy internet life in which talking face to face without looking down to phones is such a difficult thing. Instead, I took a walk around the huge yard that the host had, looked at trees and chickens and thought about my life. Sounds funny, doesn’t it? I realized the earth is truly really big, each of us has our own worries and I am not the most miserable girl in the world, even far from it considering what I had seen (such as living with a snake nest in the same house because they were so poor to afford a concrete floor). My mind was suddenly cleared out. If you asked me what lessons I got afterwards, I would suggest you to go find yours when you have a chance. All I can say is it is so worth it.

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That is why I decided to apply for a host volunteer with STEP for the second experience back in Vietnam - my home country.

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There were three Korean and two Portugal volunteers together with a Vietnamese coordinator and me this time. It was different from where I was and also the works we did. We played and organized activities for children so the timeline was not too tight and we got a lot of time for ourselves (maybe a little too much). Beside all the regular activities, we had to go to the market and cooked two meals a day.

As a host volunteer, I had to be both aggressive and considerate at the same time. I had to prepare more to be able to present myself and my country a little better. On the other side, I got to see the inside of a work camp such as how it was organized, how many people it took to take care of a group like this, how activities were hold, etc. and it inspired me. Being a host is a lot more challenging than simply taking the trip but it was a wonderful chance for me to see who I really am.  At the end of the week, I realized cooking was not my favorite part, I love playing with children, breaking the ice among strangers is my strength, but I judge people too fast, I tend to overthink and I give up trying to understand others too quickly (yes I know those are not good points but realizing those is progress, right?). Also, when I listened to the final thoughts of the others and realized how wonderful they thought of Vietnam, I kind of feel proud. Sort of :D

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The next time I see a volunteer trip that fits my time, I know I will jump on it. Will you?

Thank you STEP forward exchange for two of the mind-changing experiences and I hope you can continue doing what you are doing since it changes people for the better!

Tan Ngoc Thuy Linh