#VolunteerAbroadBecause...Cultural Interchange Brings Understanding

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

John Dwyer, of Over50andOverseas.com (read another of our interviews with him here!), notes, “In 1991 I joined the Peace Corps. My Peace Corps service in Guatemala in 1991-92 led to work as a United Nations Volunteer in the first elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Bosnian War. I have since worked elections in 12 other countries. A particular highlight of my international work was managing camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 2002 in Herat, Afghanistan. Development work in Kandahar, Afghanistan also stands out. I have traveled to 56 countries in total. In the U.S. I have worked with FEMA as a reservist for the past twelve-years and have worked on most of the major domestic disasters; currently in a disaster survival assistance management capacity. I continue to both travel and volunteer internationally. As a writer my work has appeared in Transitions Abroad, The Orange County Register, Huff Post, Pakistan Link, Peace Corps Online, International Travel News, and various other online and print publications.”
#VolunteerAbroadBecause...Cultural Interchange Brings Understanding - John Dwyer in Bangladesh

What motivated your decision to volunteer abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?
I have always had an interest in things international. My original intention after service in the U.S. Army was to major in international relations in college. In fact, I spent a very short time at Mexico City College when I returned from the army. Life intervened and I ended up in business and raising a family. A time came, after I turned fifty, where I was in a position to follow my interests. Peace Corps had been in the back of my mind since it was first announced by President Kennedy. A chance meeting with a friend of my son who had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica rekindled my interest. I contacted Peace Corps and served in Guatemala.

How did you find your job? What resources did you use?
Contacting Peace Corps was easy. I called the 800 number in Washington, D.C. I submitted my application and, a year later, was on the plane to Guatemala. Regarding international jobs that followed Peace Corps service, they began when I was working, post-Peace Corps, as a United Nations Volunteer in Bosnia and Herzegovina as an election supervisor. An executive with an international organization liked my work, and, when I returned home, offered me a position in Kosovo. That led to work in Afghanistan and Egypt. I have worked or volunteered in 12 countries and traveled to 56. I have found that traveling to a country to volunteer is a great way to network for employment opportunities. I remember meeting an Italian woman in Afghanistan who went there to volunteer at the Kabul Zoo. She made contact with a large inter-governmental organization and ended up with a very good job.
#VolunteerAbroadBecause...Cultural Interchange Brings Understanding - John Dwyer working the South Sudan referendum as an election supervisor
What was your experience like? Can you share some favorite memories - and challenges?
Obviously I have enjoyed the experiences very much, as I keep returning. A particularly sweet memory is of a young Muslim girl a colleague and I met, right after the Bosnian War, along a rural road in Bosnia. She was coming toward us with a girlfriend and she was eating from a small bunch of grapes. I wished her good afternoon in the local language and continued on my way. A few minutes later I heard running footsteps behind me. I turned around and looked back and saw the little girl was running toward me. She came up to me, stopped, looked up at me, and split her bunch of grapes in half. She gave me half of the grapes, turned around, and ran back to her friend.  Another I remember involves a Thai taxi driver who, in Bangkok, took a little figure of Buddha he was wearing on his shirt, gave it to me, and told me how to wear it properly. He was concerned about me returning to Kandahar, Afghanistan after my R&R in Bangkok.

The challenges? I guess the biggest challenges have been the cultural differences that one needs to adjust to. We, from the west, tend to want things to happen right away and other cultures are more leisurely about accomplishing tasks. It is something we can, and have to, adjust to. I remember a fellow in Guatemala to whom I mentioned that I was having a difficult time adjusting to people showing up late for appointments. He mentioned that the Guatemalans have expressions in Spanish that describe such anxiety: gringo presíon and gringo tiempo. Gringo pressure and gringo time. So cultural adjustment is a two-way street.

What skills did you develop from your experience? Do you feel changed from your experience abroad?
The most important skill I believe I have developed from my international experience is the ability to work in an intercultural situation. When working abroad, cultural differences enter into all discussions and decisions and have to be explored, considered, and accommodated. I feel changed in the sense that I believe I am more sensitive to cultural differences and more observant and understanding of how they affect decision making and inter-personal relationships.

Has your experience helped you get to where you are today? 
In the sense that I am globally involved in both my life and friendships, it has been of great help. I cannot help but think about daily news issues in a global sense. My friendships are world-wide. My writing is about volunteering and international experience, and my website is devoted to international volunteering.

Any advice for students thinking about volunteering overseas? What are some highlights or things that you gained or changed your perspective?
I certainly encourage volunteering overseas. I think that a student interested in volunteering should carefully study the opportunities available. Make sure that the community being served by the volunteer has a stake in the project, that they want it for their community and that they are participating in the project’s development. An in-country, non-governmental organization (NGO) should be involved to assure that the project is of benefit to the community. There are stories of schools being built where there are no teachers and medical facilities where there are no doctors or nurses. I think the greatest gain I have had from my travels is the knowledge that we humans, no matter our religion, our skin color, how we dress, or where we live, all want the same things in life. We want security for our family, education for our children, and the ability to earn an income and achieve economic stability to support our families. Anything that we, as volunteers, can do to contribute to the realization of these wishes is our raison d’etre.

I also truly believe that the volunteer is rewarded as much the community that has been served. 
#VolunteerAbroadBecause...Cultural Interchange Brings Understanding - John Dwyer in Cairo

How has international education impacted or influenced your cultural identity?
My international education has been an informal one, “on-the-job” training if you will. It has been very enlightening. I believe it has given me a deeper understanding of the universality of humankind in the quest to exist and survive. As I mentioned earlier, we all have the same basic needs. My travels have connected me around the world and made feel a true world citizen

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
Tomorrow morning, a friend whom I met in the Balkans, and who is now with the UN, is going to call me from the Republic of Congo. In the afternoon I will be talking via Skype with someone I met while on a mission in Macedonia. Yesterday I corresponded with a friend in Warsaw whom I met while volunteering in Ukraine. I also exchanged messages yesterday with a Kenyan friend with whom I worked in Afghanistan and who is now in Uganda. None of these wonderful friendships would have developed had I not volunteered internationally. These friendships and exchanges also bring the mutual cultural understanding that is so badly lacking in our time. 
#VolunteerAbroadBecause...Cultural Interchange Brings Understanding - John Dwyer in the Ukraine

#volunteerabroadbecause...cultural interchange brings understanding

All photos courtesy and copyright John Dwyer