The Realities of Working Abroad: Lessons Learned in the Field

Christabell, Obot and Alyson catching their breath before the big event.

Over the past several weeks, my colleague and I had been working hard organizing and preparing for a ‘Job Networking Event’ which was held on the Koforidua Polytechnic Campus. While the event was unlike anything we had taken part in before, we figured it would be a relatively straightforward task, as we had quite a bit of assistance from other volunteers and YCI staff.

The event, held in an auditorium on the KPOLY campus, was aimed to give students a chance to network with several employers who operate locally, including Nestle Ghana, COCOBOD, and several insurance companies and banks. Each employer spoke on a topic related to job seeking after graduation and what students should be doing to prepare for life after graduation. Afterwards students were given the chance to ask the employers questions and had a chance to network with the employers.

To prepare for the job fair, we needed to do some research on the current state of unemployment. This proved to be a lot more difficult than we had anticipated and we ran into many glitches throughout this process. Firstly, it was EXTREMELY difficult to find reliable information regarding the unemployment situation in Ghana on the Internet. While some websites showed unemployment statistics being as high as 40%, other websites stated rates being as low as 5%. We then thought maybe we could find a government census in which this information would be clearly shown by going to the department and asking to view the census directly so that we could gather the information. Well, unlike in Canada, where this sort of information is free for anyone’s use, this isn’t the case in Ghana. We asked several of our colleagues where we could find this information, or where the organization where we could obtain a copy of the census was located and nobody seemed to know. Some even said that even if we did find out where we could find the census, they wouldn’t show it to us because it wasn’t for public knowledge. Lesson learned: don’t expect things to be as simple and easy as they are at home.

So without any information on the current state of the situation in Ghana, we went ahead with the unemployment survey that we had planned to distribute to students on two of Koforidua’s post-secondary campus’ not knowing what the expect. We had planned to distribute the survey, which consisted of about 20 questions to students on both All Nations University, as well as Koforidua Polytechnic Campus on two separate days.

The first day, we arrived at All Nations University with a set of survey questions prepared to ask students willing to participate. We had help from several of the YMCA mentors so we thought distributing the survey would be relatively simple. Our project coordinator had met with the Vice President of Student Affairs the week before so we were all set to go. When we arrived on campus we went to the registrars office just as a courtesy to tell them we had arrived and would begin distributing the surveys, only to find that nobody had any idea what we were talking about, or even who we were. After waiting for around 45 minutes in the registrars office while they tried to get in contact with the Vice President of Student Affairs who knew about our survey, they told us just to go ahead with the survey and led us upstairs. Little did we know, rather than approaching students around campus at random and asking them to participate, we would be interrupting the weekly chapel meeting and being led on stage to give a presentation (which we had not prepared for.) We were led on stage and asked to introduce ourselves and give an explanation of what we were doing in front of about 100 students. We then distributed the surveys and thought it would take them about five minutes to complete them then we would be able to leave. This wasn’t the case. They asked us to go through the survey on stage with a microphone so all the students could hear, question by question, explaining what each was asking. This part alone took about fifteen minutes. Then, just when we thought we had finished, the students decided they wanted to have a question and answer period, which also lasted about fifteen minutes, after which they asked us all to introduce ourselves, stating our occupation, schooling, age and marital status. Needless to say, feeling slightly blindsided, we were happy when the ordeal was over. Lesson learned: expect the unexpected.

The survey on the KPOLY campus went quite significantly smoother, with no Q&A on the volunteers dating lives.

With the event approaching, we had been having several meetings with SIFE (Students In Free Enterprise), the group helping us plan the event, and with various staff at the KPOLY campus, including the Rector, the Registrar, etc., regarding the planning of the event. We had initially met with the Rector regarding the space for the event several weeks before hand and he had assured us that everything was a go and things were set for the event to take place. Later, we realized this wasn’t quite the case. When we met with the Registrar (who finally arrived to our meeting an hour and a half late) regarding the payment for the space (hoping to receive it for free as it was a free program and we are volunteers) she hadn’t heard of the event, which was now two days away. It was now Monday, and she suggested we set up a meeting with her later in the week to discuss a date to hold our event. We had already began our advertising, arranged for food and beverage, and the employers had already been scheduled to present on Thursday. While the Rector had assured us that we would be able to have our program here, the Registrar on the other hand, told us the theatre was booked and the students had another program going on this day. Through several phone calls, and a few more meetings we were finally able to figure things out, with only having to push our event forward a few hours and a crisis was averted. Lesson learned: communication is KEY.

Here’s to another successful event!

With everything finally sorted out, the morning of the networking event, we arrived around 9:15am. The event, which was scheduled to start at 1pm, had been changed to 11am so we were slightly nervous about attendance. When we arrived, while we were simply assisting SIFE and the YMCA mentors put on the program, we were the only ones there. After waiting about an hour, a few members of SIFE finally arrived and we were able to get in the hall to set up. When 11am rolled around, we were starting to get a little antsy, as there were only three students in the theatre so far. 12pm came, and still only about fifteen students and half the employers were present, even though we had been walking around campus advertising that morning. Around 1pm students finally started showing up and by 1:15 we had started the program. Once it had finally began, the students were all very engaged and the employers had interesting and informative material to present. Lesson learned: expect long delays and schedule them into your agenda.

Participants left happy.

Overall, despite the several hiccups throughout day of the event and the difficulties and unexpected events we faced in planning, we all thought the event was a huge success. The students learned a lot of valuable information from the employers that will be important for them when entering the job market after graduation. While they learned a lot of information on preparing for a career, I think we learned just as much. We learned a lot in regards to dealing with difficult situations, handling setbacks and stepping out of our comfort zones. The plain fact is that while working abroad, regardless of where in the world you are working, or who you are working with, you will find that things are done differently from how you would expect them to be done at home. You cannot expect things to be done as easily as they are at home, an a lot more effort is needed to complete what might seem to be simple tasks. Time is a Western concept. While Westerners may find time to be something that is strictly adhered to, we have learned that in many other places throughout the world, time doesn’t matter nearly as much. Many meetings or events that are scheduled for a specific time are delayed for even several hours, so foresee setbacks, and schedule everything allowing for time delays. While in North America, when a meeting is held, we can expect the information to be relayed to all the appropriate people, this just isn’t how things necessarily work elsewhere and meetings often need to be repeated with many other people to ensure proper communication. While this can be extremely frustrating, and can even be very discouraging, that’s just how it is. There is nothing that can be done to change the ways that people do things because while we may think the way things are done in any country other than our own are unconventional, they likely think the same about our methods. Expect the unexpected, and prepare for setbacks.  Regardless of how much control you think you may have over a situation, you just have to let things happen as they happen. While a situation may feel overwhelming and frustrating, take a minute, take a deep breath, and continue on and just do the best you can with what you’ve got.

-Alyson Keelan, Youth Ambassador, Ghana 2012

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