31 Jul Volunteering overseas – adapting to a new environment with a month of firsts
Guest blog post with Innovate ME intern, Daphne Wang
Volunteering, interning or travelling overseas is a unique experience that will help you discover skills and characteristics you didn’t know you had. It’s an opportunity to build a global network that often leads to life-changing careers and rewarding friendships. Check out our video with Jane Baldwin – she interned abroad with YCI in Ethiopia and shared how it helped with her develop her career while creating memorable moments that will stay with her for life.
Taking the leap and travelling solo is exciting but can also feel overwhelming at times. It’s important to do your research to find the right internship or volunteer program for you and prepare yourself as much as possible for the unexpected. Things may not always go according to plan, but stepping outside your comfort zone to have an unforgettable experience will transform you not only personally, but also professionally.
Daphne Wang is interning with WWF in Gabon as a Data Management Officer through YCI’s Innovate ME international youth internship program (IYIP) funded by Global Affairs Canada. Below she shares some of her experiences during her first month interning abroad in Gabon.
This is not my first time living abroad, nor my first time living away from home, but with every new environment comes a mix of challenging yet rewarding experiences, quickly learned skills, and shattered assumptions of how things would work. To paint a picture of this initial phase of discovery, I’ve listed some of the most impactful firsts that I have experienced since arriving in Gabon’s capital city, Libreville:
- First time furnishing a home on a tight budget. Surprisingly, the prices in Gabon are comparable to prices in Canada so we quickly learned how to live frugally. We’re grateful for the stipend that YCI and Global Affairs Canada have provided us for living expenses in Gabon; but as with any budget, our stipend is not limitless. Our house came unfurnished and some of the bigger ticket items we’ve purchased so far are two air conditioning units for our bedrooms, mattresses, a fridge, a hot plate, and a wooden table. For the rest, we’ve gotten creative or realized we could comfortably live without it. You’d be surprised what you can make with some cardboard, tape and a little imagination. No Wi-Fi, microwaves, bed frames, and washing machines? Life actually isn’t so bad without these commodities. In fact, it’s actually quite nice.
- First time feeling out of place culturally. Growing up in Canada, we’ve become accustomed to being surrounded by residents and visitors from all backgrounds and cultures. However, Gabon is not your typical tourist hot spot, and most expats are older businessmen, so two twenty-something girls from Canada are exotic specimens to find on the Libreville streets. We get stares, “ni-hao”s, “bonjours” and other greetings from people we pass by. We are easily spotted and get called out from the back of giant crowds to perform on dance stages. I could say that all this attention is uncomfortable, because at times it is, but I think that it is part of immersing yourself and adapting to a different culture. Whether overseas or in Canada, being aware and respectful of the cultural environment, as well as understanding how it is different, is critical to ensuring your safe and successful integration in a community.
- First time categorizing water for its uses. We have bottled water for drinking, boiled water for hot tea, coffee and brushing our teeth, and tap water for washing. I’m still learning how to live more mindfully and sustainably – something I found kind of a buzzkill at home. However, here in an unfamiliar and developing place, good health and safety practices cannot be taken for granted. While it’s not that exciting to stay home and do chores, and dividing water by usage can be tedious, the risks of otherwise becoming ill (or blowing the previously mentioned budget) are even less desirable. For me, this also serves as an example of the living conditions that are so undervalued at home but are conspicuous privileges when living abroad.
- First time spending 24/7 with a roommate who I’ve basically just met. In less than a month, Lauren went from being a total stranger to my best friend and support system in Gabon. A week or so in, I realized that we nearly spent all our waking hours together – at work, cooking at home, and going out for supplies. Since we are the first two WWF Gabon interns from Canada, we are the only ones who really understand each other’s situations. As far as 24/7 roommates go, I feel extremely grateful and fortunate to have Lauren here as a friend and to help me learn how to make more conscious decisions. No we don’t agree on everything, and we could still improve on communicating with each other, but this experience has really taught me about how important it is to, and how fast we can, build teamwork and solidarity.
- First time I made my own board game out of cardboard. I bet you’re thinking “hunh?” right now but living abroad isn’t all about visiting exciting new places and uploading glamorous photos to your Instagram. My experience has been a pretty steady 8-4 office job followed by housekeeping chores. As described earlier, Libreville isn’t a bustling tourist destination (yet!) so that means we spend a lot of our free time relaxing at home – but it does serve as a nice meditative break from the busy, stressful student life back home. Without Internet, I spend a lot of my downtime reading French novels and designing new board games. The game I’m working on right now is called “Can you survive 30 days abroad?” We have and we’re certainly stronger and more resilient as a result.
So there you have it, a brief snapshot of what life is like adjusting to being an intern overseas. I’m certain that one day a few months or a few years from now I will look back at these initial experiences with a deeper cultural awareness, greater sense of self and adaptability, and a different, more global outlook.
Daphne Wang is one of YCI’s first Innovate ME Data Management Officer interns working with WWF in Gabon. She is a University of Toronto graduate and holds a bachelor’s degree double majoring in Peace, Conflict & Justice Studies and Global Health with an Environmental Studies minor. She looks forward to transforming her ideals and passions into a meaningful career that helps make a real difference.
Want to intern overseas, develop your career and make a difference? Apply for YCI’s Innovate ME international youth internship program today.