In July of 2007, I found myself covered in red dirt, equipped with large rubber boots, a bandana and a shovel, digging a ditch on a volcano in Costa Rica. I was there with Youth Challenge International (YCI) for a five-week project. Little did I know, this experience was going to have a profound impact on my life.
Like most students, after graduating from university with a bachelor’s degree, I had very little idea of what I was going to do next. I wasn’t quite ready to hit the work force permanently but I also wasn’t ready to hang out at home all summer. Several hours of surfing the Internet for ideas finally led to the discovery of volunteer projects abroad then ultimately, Youth Challenge International. Before I knew it, I was in Costa Rica along with a group of 11 amazing people, from all over Canada and with diverse backgrounds. Our task was to physically build an aqueduct that would be providing potable water for 25 nearby communities. It didn’t take me very long to recognize that I had discovered my passion. I had realized that doing development work was something I felt I ought to do.
Prior to my experience in Costa Rica, I had completed a degree in Global Political Economy where we had studied several poverty issues from different countries around the world. I had traveled in the past and had caught a glimpse of poverty here and there, though I had never actually been to a developing country or seen it first hand. What I quickly noticed upon my arrival in Costa Rica was that no textbook would ever come close to teaching me what I would learn abroad.
During that time, the most important thing I had come to understand was that I actually had a bigger role in all of this. With education and learning, whether in a classroom, or in any every day setting, comes a responsibility. I was beginning to understand that I not only had a responsibility to share what I had learned, but I also had the privilege and opportunity of doing something more with that knowledge. Simply stated, in Costa Rica I shared knowledge that I had learned at home in university, and when I returned home I applied new qualities and capabilities to my daily life from lessons learned with a fond appreciation of my time in Costa Rica. The skills I developed, such as adaptability, respect for other cultures, and a newfound type of patience I acquired abroad have become so valuable and continue to be applicable to many other situations.
These experiences prompted me to return to university to study International Development and Conflict Resolution in order to get at the heart of development abroad. In turn, that has since inspired me to participate in three other projects in Africa, for periods ranging between three weeks to nine months. I can’t dispute that my education was pivotal and reinforced my experiences abroad, however, that experience itself essentially landed me a consulting position on a project for which I had recently volunteered. Additionally, I have just been hired for a project with the United Nations where I was told that my experience abroad was the determining factor in obtaining the position. In the next few months, I will embark on yet more adventures, once again in Africa and for the first time, in Asia.
It can be difficult to explain the value of doing development work abroad to someone who has never been. Some things are certain: there will be challenging times, it will often be exhausting and highly taxing, and you might commit a number of cultural faux pas. There will probably be an adjustment period, and you might be a little scared at times (or even a lot!). However, you will also meet new people, have once in a lifetime opportunities, and have the chance to experience other cultures first hand. You will gain new skills that will make you more employable, and you might discover a few things about yourself. Perhaps most importantly, you will have the opportunity to make positive changes in people’s lives that will impact a community.
What I appreciated most about YCI – the organization that introduced me to working abroad – was that they conduct and participate in ethically sound development work. Not only did this fuel my passion for humanitarian work, knowing that it can be difficult or even controversial at times, but it showed me that working abroad can be a very positive, life changing experience for all those involved.
Why not turn your overseas travels into a more profound and meaningful learning experience where you can impact the lives of individuals or a community in need? It is not only an incredible opportunity to be fully embedded in a foreign culture and meet new people but also to spend your weekends living on the edge by going rafting on the Nile, trekking with mountain gorillas, or kissing a giraffe.
Standing on Volcan Arenal five years ago – soaking wet from the rain, exhausted and dirty though satisfied after a hard days work, admiring the view of lush rain forests – I was only beginning to understand that what they say is true: the world is your oyster.
-Lisa Gaudry, Youth Ambassador, Costa Rica 2007
YCI is currently recruiting for two projects in Costa Rica. If you only have two weeks to spare of the winter break, check out this project departing December 26th: http://bit.ly/YCICostaRica2wk. Two weeks to short for you? Check out our Program Calendar for a full list of upcoming projects in Costa Rica.