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Finding Your A-Ha! Moment During an International Volunteering Trip

A group of volunteers with volunteer written on their shirts.

In my online travels as a career coach over the years, I’ve come upon budding new terms that describe the evolving climate of the world of work. From “slash careers” to “variety seekers”, a common theme I’ve seen emerge among job seekers is the desire to not only find passion and purpose in their work, but to honor their multiple interests.

Somewhat identifying as a “variety seeker” myself, I was attracted to the HoneLife manifesto, created by sister-and-brother team Jessica and Alex Wood. As a resource for individuals whose passion is “variety”, HoneLife normalizes the idea that not everyone is cut out for a conventional, repetitive lifestyle. In a chance post in the Variety Seeker Tribe online discussion group, I connected with Jaimie Jenks, a nonprofit administrator and international volunteer extraordinaire. Her bucket list has taken her to Sri Lanka, Vanuatu, and Thailand. Below is our conversation, filled with inspiration, reflections about oneself, and a rumination on what an “epiphany” really is and how to identify one when it comes in a way that you might not expect.

What inspired you to volunteer abroad?

I think I’m probably a little bit older than your normal demographic, but I was completely unsatisfied with my life - I didn’t like the projects I was working on at my job. Call it bravery, call it stupidity, but I decided I was just going to travel for six months. That was the catalyst for going abroad at that time.

First, I did a volunteer trip in Sri Lanka, where I taught English. I came upon that opportunity serendipitously through my brother who knew the people who were organizing the trip. I knew these kinds of trips existed, but the catalyst for me was “I want a new career, a new direction and purpose in my life”. Traveling on my own was on my bucket list.

Tell me more about the circumstances around that volunteer trip.

My brother knew one of the professors at a private college near me. This professor is Sri Lankan, and each year he takes a very small group there to teach English in various settings. They partner with a doctor and do traveling clinics. I’ve always been an adventure-seeker, and I traveled a ton beforehand. I jumped on it.

None of my expectations for the trip panned out, but…

What were you hoping to accomplish on your trip?

I didn’t go and have an epiphany that this would be my next career. No, I didn’t find a career passion that I loved, even though the experience was completely priceless and amazing, and I learned a ton about myself. I learned I don’t want to live in a third-world country over the long term. It’s just too hard, and I came to the realization that the novelty of dealing with malaria and extreme poverty had worn off a little bit.

That was a real eye-opener for me. I really thought international development was where it was at for me. While I loved the program I was in, delivering or facilitating lessons was not the best use of my skill set. My skill set is more in the administrative work -- rather than doing the teaching, coordinating the teaching would be better for me.

What I did learn is that it’s just as important to discover what you don’t want to do.

So perhaps epiphanies don’t actually happen the way we might think, with the skies opening and a choir of angels singing upon a striking realization in that exact moment. I wonder if an epiphany can occur as more of a “slow burn”, with the striking realization happening more as an “aftermath” experience.

It shattered the illusion of the ‘a-ha’ moment, that it doesn’t really exist.

The epiphany for me was the definitive knowledge of not wanting to live in a developing country over the long term. I didn’t want to question that decision. I was aware of the things that I was absolutely, radically grateful for, such as living in America. Prior to that very clear choice, it had definitely been an aspiration of mine, to live abroad. The volunteer experience I had was great for the perspective, challenge, and adventure. Once I put it into a two-year -- or even longer term -- reality, it just seemed too challenging. However, I did participate in other short-term volunteer travel experiences.

How did you go about researching those other international volunteer experiences?

My experience in Sri Lanka opened my entire world up to volunteer travel. Then I started actively researching it -- I went to Borders and got some books on it, which are like encyclopedias, with tons of information.

Is that how you discovered Global Visions International (GVI)? Did you apply for other programs?

I found the GVI programs while I was researching sea turtle trips. I love sea turtles and it was on my bucket list to see them before I die. It wasn’t about working in conservation specifically; even though I know there’s a place for that, it’s not my strong interest. I just wanted to experience the sea turtles, and I found a GVI program in Vanuatu (which is an island nation in the South Pacific) to do that. 

Anyway, I would go through the book to see what sounded interesting, and then I’d go to the website for more information. GVI is dramatically different in terms of quality, safety, and what the program offers. I researched it actively in the books and online.

I had never been to Vanuatu before, and it was more the trip- the opportunity to work on a sea turtle project specifically- than the company itself. That being said though, the GVI website is great, and I could tell that they were big enough to have sufficient resources to meet any unforeseen safety needs or concerns. I also didn’t want anything religious-based, and GVI provided non-denominational experiences.

I later signed up for a second volunteer project with GVI- teaching in Thailand. It was a fluke -- I hadn’t originally scheduled that. After my sea turtle trip, I planned to spend some time in Australia, but I was not really enjoying my time there. It was too similar to America and was not enriching me in the way I wanted it to. I discovered that GVI had an office in Melbourne, so I made a visit and asked what volunteer trip they were going to start the next week, and it was Thailand. So off I went!

This experience was challenging because it involved a certification program. It was more hard core in that there was training in the morning and then we taught in the afternoon. It taught me how to think on my feet by predicting what the communication barriers might be and then plan for them. I needed to be able to say the same information in multiple ways, to figure out and understand that not everyone will learn, hear, and assess information in the same way.

What type of volunteer experiences did you participate in before you volunteered abroad? How -- if at all -- did those experiences help shape your interests?

I had volunteered on several nonprofit boards. I had not done much of what people would consider “conventional” volunteer work or projects. These international volunteer experiences were my first ones that someone would consider conventional volunteer work -- in other words, actively, tangibly working directly in the specific project.

I served as VP of Development and then President for the Visual Art and Design Academy. In California, the public high schools have academies within the schools where you can take an integrated curriculum.

I was on an environmental board for about a year, and I’ve been on a grant-making committee for a music foundation where I live in Santa Barbara.

So I see some common themes of education, environment, and the arts in your experiences!

Currently, I work for the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, which is a nonprofit that archives and preserves all of the human history of the Channel Islands along southern California coastline. I do office management type of stuff. My long-term goal is to be a nonprofit consultant.

I’m starting a nonprofit giving circle -- there will be a membership fee, and each individual donation will be leveraged to make collective decisions with fellow donors. We’ll have much more donor participation in allocating the funds and leveraging resources. I want to primarily benefit music organizations -- music therapy, music innovation, and definitely cognitive development. I’m just writing the proposal and board manual at this point. Worst case scenario, it doesn’t manifest but I will have learned a ton by starting a nonprofit from ground zero. Best case scenario is that it’s super successful and it’s my dream job, my dream reality.

What tips do you have for other people who want to volunteer abroad?

I have a few!

  • Try to figure out what type of experience you want -- teaching English, working with animals- whatever it is, narrow down your topic and interests. I think what helped me was that I knew what I was looking for, such as the sea turtle project. If I did a general search for volunteer programs, it would have been more difficult to find something.
  • Talk to a former volunteer who has done the programs and get realistic feedback on the logistics. Ask them: did you feel safe, were there any crazy challenges, and if so, how were they handled? You really want to be with an organization that has the resources that can help you if something catastrophic happens.
  • Demonstrate that you’re open for challenging experiences. They are not walks in the park. Demonstrate commitment and follow-through whether it’s a previous volunteer experience or job. I was older when I volunteered -- I was not coming out of high school. I had zero problems getting into these programs and they were happy to have me because I had life experience and I increased the diversity.
  • Demonstrate passion and enthusiasm. You have to be willing to sign up for an adventure. You’re not going to the Hilton, you’re going to probably a thatched roof in the middle of the jungle. In my experience with both orgs that I volunteered with, it was really about being up for the challenge.

Any tips about the application process itself?

What I would suggest is after you do the online application process, make sure you get a phone call or video chat interview and talk to someone live. You get a much better feeling for the whole experience. If that’s not standard practice, I would do some more thorough research. Try to schedule a call with a previous volunteer (like I mentioned earlier) but also even someone on staff, whoever is handling the applications. I also looked at it as my opportunity to interview them -- do I want to do this with you people? Do they sound reputable and like they know what they are talking about? Ask realistic questions about what you’ll be doing.

What skills (life skills, professional skills) did you gain from your experiences?

In terms of specific professional skills I can’t totally pinpoint them but a life skill I gained is being able to adapt to challenging situations quickly. Something I learned on this trip is to predict what the challenges or obstacles will be, and figure out how to solve them before hand. I learned about team building and how to be part of a group and have consensus. It’s really about group dynamics and communication, and letting go of your assumptions and assessing situations and people as they are.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Jaimie. I’d love to close by asking what you learned about the cultures in the countries where you volunteered and lived.

I would say the biggest thing I got from these experiences that I didn’t get from standard travel experiences was the cultural immersion. In Vanuatu, I lived in the tribe, with tribal law, and would go to the tribal council. It was completely community-based because survival depended on it.

One time, these villagers from another island literally canoed over and serenaded our entire village with song. It was this offering of peace and love and cooperation and fishing, and that was phenomenal. You don’t get that kind of immersion in a normal travel experience .

In Thailand we lived in a village with no tourists at all, and ate authentic Thai food that was hot-hot-hot. We would sit in a restaurant on a bamboo chair with sand and dirt on the floor.

I communicated with people who don’t speak my language but share my love for the environment and acceptance. It demonstrates an open-mindedness to view a different life, and the commonalities among humanity and the differences.

The giant benefit is the cultural immersion, and that is something I had not anticipated. Living as part of these communities, not separate from them, was huge.

By Victoria Crispo

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