#VolunteerAbroadBecause...it’s never too late to challenge yourself

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Steph Dyson is a travel writer and educational volunteer who writers about adventurous travel and meaningful volunteering – two ways of travelling that she views as life-changing and accessible means of experiencing the world. A former secondary school teacher, avid cheese eater, and famous Bolivian TV personality (well, almost), you can follow her tips, tricks, personal experiences of travelling and volunteering in South America at Worldly Adventurer or join her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest

Steph Dyson: #VolunteerAbroadBecause...it’s never too late to challenge yourself

What motivated your decision to volunteer abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?
For me, moving to Sucre in Bolivia to volunteer with the charity BiblioWorks was a decision made one night over a few too many cocktails; but one that I soon realized had been staring me in the face for a long time. I was teaching English in a secondary school in the UK, and while I loved working with young people, a part of me was dissatisfied and seeking a new challenge. I had discovered how addictive travelling was during the long summer holidays that teaching affords, and volunteering abroad seemed an excellent way of combining the two. 

Following that fateful night with a friend, I began an extensive internet search for projects in South America - a continent I had never visited but I thought would allow me to learn a new language and work alongside projects that served communities in real need. I came across BiblioWorks and applied to be their Volunteer and Communications Director without really knowing much about Bolivia – except that it was one of the most impoverished in the entire continent. 

How did you find your job? What resources did you use?
I’m a big fan of volunteering websites that link to free or low-fee opportunities. I like how those such as Volunteer South America and True Travellers connect you with free placements with grass-roots NGOs and charities who are in need of volunteers with tangible, professional expertise. I also think Omprakash and Go Abroad have a good range of free and low-fee positions. 
Being able to visit the charity’s website, rather than just connecting with them through a third-party website, is a good way of learning more about exactly how their work is aiding the community and – most importantly – being sustainable. 

Steph Dyson: #VolunteerAbroadBecause...it’s never too late to challenge yourself

What was your experience like? Can you share some favorite memories - and challenges?
To begin with, it was a confused haze of misunderstood instructions (as I didn’t know any Spanish) and trying to avoid getting run over by the micros (mini-buses) on the way to work. But the initial shock of actually being in Bolivia was offset by the chance to visit the charity’s rural libraries and meet the communities and families who were benefiting.

One of the highlights was the chance to pretend I was a UN delegate at a community meeting where we discussed building a new farm. I had to help translate English to Spanish and watch as my terrible Spanish was then translated into the local language, Quechua – and back again! 

As the six months passed, I was able to communicate far better with my colleagues and got to learn about their families and experiences – and how difficult it is to be a woman in such a conservative, chauvinistic society. I’ll also never forget the experience of being interviewed on live Bolivian TV – in Spanish – about the charity’s annual reading festival. The first time was absolutely terrifying and I’m sure I made very little sense, but the following few times and subsequent radio interviews were great fun, and definitely worth now being able to boast that I’m a Bolivian TV celebrity…

Steph Dyson: #VolunteerAbroadBecause...it’s never too late to challenge yourself

What skills did you develop from your experience? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad?
Resilience was one of the most important skills that the experience taught me. Although teaching in low-income areas in Greater Manchester in the UK had introduced me to this, actually being in a country, alone, and without friends and family was a brand new lesson in coping and facing the challenges that life can throw you. Being unable to speak Spanish when I arrived was also an incredible challenge and one that I battled to overcome for a long time. Only now, close to two years later, do I really see how all the hard work of learning has finally paid off. 

My experiences of volunteering in Bolivia also made me realize how useful education professionals and teachers can be to rural, disadvantaged communities. It’s often suggested to me that I should become an English teacher at an international school as a way of earning money to continue travelling, and I can definitely see why lots of teachers go down this route. 

But having seen rural communities where the standard of state education is incredibly poor and the life chances of the students reduced because of this, I’d much rather volunteer there, where the need is greater. Working for free by teaching English or supporting teachers to improve their professional capacity is one of the more sustainable ways of aiding international development. 

Has your experience helped you get to where you are today? If so, how?
After volunteering in Sucre, I travelled around Bolivia and started to write about my experiences, which led to me winning a writing prize with the UK guidebook publisher, the Rough Guides. This gave me the chance to approach a number of travel and education websites from whom I’m now a regular contributor. This platform allows me to discuss my experiences of volunteering and travelling – and promote volunteering as meaningful way of exploring the world. 

In the year since I left Sucre, I also volunteered for six weeks teaching English near La Paz, Bolivia, with Up Close Bolivia and then for six months with LAFF in Cusco, Peru, where I ran educational workshops for young people. Both of these opportunities gave me a greater understanding of the development issues in South America and the way that volunteering can help, to a small degree, in finding solutions to them. It also made me realize how the career path that I want to pursue is in the development sector. 

Any advice for students thinking about volunteer overseas? What are some highlights or things that you gained or changed your perspective?
It’s important to go into the experience being realistic about what you can and can’t achieve. Being humble about the skills you have to offer and recognizing that you’ll learn more from the experience than you’ll ever teach to the people you meet is the best way of having a successful, meaningful experience of volunteering. 

In my placements, I’ve worked in situations with both with lots of other foreign volunteers and within an environment that was only me and my Bolivian colleagues. Being aware of how this can dramatically alter your experience is also important. I loved volunteering in Bolivia, but without a conversational level of Spanish, it was difficult to communicate with my colleagues and learn as much as I would have liked. Working with other volunteers in another placement - many of whom had studied international development and were more aware of theories around development practice - was also very rewarding as it gave me a new perspective on what we were doing beyond my own understanding of education and teaching. 

Steph Dyson: #VolunteerAbroadBecause...it’s never too late to challenge yourself

How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity?
I feel far less British than I did before. Volunteering abroad and being surrounded by people from other countries and cultures has made me see the similarities between us, even if the hand that we are dealt in life is so vastly different. I feel more of a global citizen now and the past two years have left me with a desire to volunteer and work in lots of different countries as a way of better understanding the world and our shared and distinctive cultures. 

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
A main feature of what I write about on my website is how volunteering is a real option for mid-career professionals like myself – even if it’s not something that many of us have ever considered before. While seven months or even two years is not necessarily realistic for a lot of people, even a month or three volunteering abroad is a very powerful form of professional development. You’ll widen your perspective on the world, overcome challenges you never even knew existed, and learn about yourself in the process. 

Volunteering abroad will also likely have a much wider impact than just upon you: it might led to you becoming directly involved with a charity for the long-term or even setting one up. Even if it just has the impact of showing other people, both at home and abroad, how important volunteering is as a form of cultural exchange and personal development, it will be time well spent. 

#VolunteerAbroadBecause...it’s never too late to challenge yourself

All photos courtesy and copyright Steph Dyson