It’s the time of year when many of our school-age volunteers start to plan their summer holidays – which may include signing up for volunteer programmes abroad. While working to help a community, an individual or the environment, you as a volunteer also benefit - whether you’re learning a new language, becoming a qualified diver, or improving soft skills such as team building and presenting.
I spoke to former Projects Abroad volunteers, Lisa Sheldrick, Stephanie Day and Bessie Richards, who all took part in our High School Special placements. In this blog post, they explain how the projects they chose helped their career path in some way, and provide advice for future young people looking to do something similar.
Why did you choose the specific High School Special that you did?
Lisa: I chose the Law & Business project in Chengdu followed by the Human Rights project in Cape Town because I have an interest in these areas and it was the perfect way to explore these interests in a safe and well organised environment. It is very rare for an 18 year old to go into law firms in China and speak to directors about their business and this uniqueness really attracted me to the project. I had always wanted to help people in disadvantaged areas and the project in Cape Town enabled me to go to a township and run a food distribution service which gave me the opportunity to help, even in a small way - but it meant a lot to the people of the township.
Stephanie: I have always been interested in marine conservation and wanted to do this as my degree but wanted to make sure it was right for me, so I decided to volunteer on the Conservation in Thailand High School Special. I only wanted to do a short volunteer project because it was my first time away from home on my own.
Bessie: The reason I chose the Archaeology High School Special in Peru was because I had a keen interest in history and was considering archaeology as a degree subject at the time. I wanted to gain experience and learn more about the Incan culture, and I knew that if I didn’t study archaeology I would study history, so the project would still be linked; I also wanted to do as much travelling as I could before going to university and Peru was definitely high on my list of places I wanted to visit!
Did your chosen project help you in any way in terms of your studies or career?
Lisa: I currently study law at university and am pursuing a career in commercial law. I have often spoken about my High School Special projects in interviews as there were tasks where I was required to work in a team with people from all over the world; for example, the moot court case in South Africa. Talking to the lawyers in Chengdu helped me decide that I would like to work for a law firm that has an international presence so I can travel and work in different law firms around the world.
Stephanie: Yes, it helped me decide to do BSc Earth and Ocean Science at the University of Brighton as well as helping me to get a place there because my supervisor remembered my application due to my volunteering experience. It has helped me to go on to do my MSc Oceanography at the University of Southampton as well.
Bessie: Yes, I think it did; the belief system of the Incas fascinated me as much as the archaeological aspect, so I ended up studying Philosophy and History. I was accepted into the University of Exeter which is a leading university in those subjects, and was asked about my time volunteering by the acceptance tutors who had read my personal statement; in my experience, it’s certainly something both universities and employers notice on your application or CV. I do now actually work for Projects Abroad so it’s come full circle for me!
Looking back at your time abroad, is there any memory or aspect that really stands out for you?
Lisa: The memory that stands out the most for me was during the Human Rights project in Cape Town when we went on the weekend away to a safari park. It was great to spend some fun time away with the other participants and interesting to talk to the supervisors about their lives and the challenges facing their community and country.
Stephanie: It was fantastic to experience a different culture and to see more of the world as well as the friends I made who I am still in contact with. The experience also helped me to go to university as I was quite a home bird so used to get homesick, but this experience helped me to get over this.
Bessie: The incredible staff and other volunteers; they made the experience as great as it was! The project itself was fantastic, but when you have a team of positive, enthusiastic, friendly people around you, everything is made even better. It was my first time away from home on my own, in a completely different environment and culture to what I was used to, but the staff and volunteers I worked with made it all easy to cope with. I’m still in touch with people I volunteered with 6 years later!
What would your advice be for teenagers thinking about doing a trip like this?
Lisa: Research the culture of the destination before you go to minimise the culture shock and help you settle in quicker.
Stephanie: Definitely do it as it is a great experience. You make life long memories and possibly friends, and the volunteering experience stands out on your CV or university application.
Bessie: Do it! You may not get the opportunity to do something like this again and it’s so valuable, not just in terms of improving your skills but in making friends, experiencing new cultures and making a difference at the same time. And when you get there, take steps outside of your comfort zone. Say yes to as many things as possible and get involved in as much as you can; the experience will be so much better if you’re joining in and making memories rather than watching from the sidelines.
Thinking about joining one of our summer High School Specials? You can find out everything you need to know here. If you’d like to chat to someone who has been on one of these programmes before, we can arrange that for you – or you can speak to one of our Programme Advisors for more information.
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. To find out more about what you can expect from this project we encourage you to speak to one of our friendly staff.