15 April 2014

AIESEC Go Volunteer exchange: A life changing experience

It’s eye-opening what travelling over the summer break can do for a uni student, especially if the purpose of travel is volunteer and social work. That’s what I found during my trip to Europe at the beginning of 2014, as part of AIESEC’s Go Volunteer exchange. AIESEC is a global youth network that develops leaders through international exchange. With the aid of a Business School scholarship, I was able to undertake my AIESEC exchange in Hungary over a period of six weeks. My ultimate aim was to develop cultural awareness and understanding in my work in two very distinct institutions.

My fellow volunteers, who were all from Brazil, whom I lived and worked with at the refugee camp.
The first was a refugee camp, whereby many of the refugees came from countries such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, Cameroon, Syria and Algeria. Together with my fellow volunteers who were all from Brazil and Mexico, I taught English basics such as ‘My name is….’ and ‘it is nice to meet you’ to the adult refugees. As many of them had experienced various degrees of emotional, social and physical struggles in their own war-torn countries, their aspiration to learn English was one of their goals in their pursuit of reaching safe and democratic countries such as Australia or America. For some of them, their brave stories of enduring months of travel by foot or with strangers made me cherish how fortunate I am to live in Australia. And although my father was once also a refugee, this experience of living and working in a refugee camp propelled many questions in my mind about how Australia was dealing with its humanitarian issues.

Myself and a volunteer playing soccer with the kids at the refugee camp.
After two weeks of teaching and getting to know the families at the refugee camp, I was offered the opportunity to work in a school for blind and mentally disabled children. Having never had any experience of working with the blind, I was anxious about how I would cope and manage my interactions. However, my anxiety was unwarranted. Whether it be saying hello to me and attempting to hold up a conversation in English (very few Hungarians can speak English) or bringing fruit and other snacks to my dorm room so that I wouldn’t get lonely living by myself, the staff and students all made me feel so welcome and safe. The warmth shown to me by everyone in the school really motivated me to do as much as I could to contribute to their learning and teaching environment.

My grade 3 kids at the Blind School.
So what did my typical day look like? I would wake up at 6.45am, have breakfast in the school dining hall, and start my first class at 7.15am. I would usually go to five classes throughout the day, teaching children who ranged from 7-17 years old, all of whom had very unique personalities and levels of English proficiency. Usually, I was accompanied by the classroom teacher, who could translate for me. What was really inspiring was that the teachers at the school were also blind and aside from their teaching jobs, they each had unique interests and talents which they pursued. For instance, one of the English teachers that I worked with was an opera singer who was concurrently working on her PhD, and is involved in numerous charitable and social initiatives to raise awareness about programs and opportunities available to blind people. She is such a great mentor, colleague and friend to me, as are many of the other staff members and students that I met.

Making ANZAC biscuits at the Blind School.
All in all, working in the refugee camp and the blind school gave me so much motivation to explore ways in which I could better serve my community back here in Australia. Hence, although I am devoted to finishing my Bachelor of Commerce degree and am involved in a number of student start-ups and societies, I am committed to making a concerted effort to contribute to my community by volunteering for humanitarian and youth development causes, as well as attending festivities that celebrate cultural diversity. Looking back, I can honestly say that my 2013/2014 summer break was undoubtedly the best summer break I’ve ever had.

Christine Ma
Current student at The University of Sydney Business School

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