Returned volunteer Aaron Watson gives his top three reasons to become an international volunteer
Keen to put his studies in international relations and development studies into practice and ready for a change after working in the Northern Territory, Aaron Watson moved to rural Cambodia on assignment as an Australian volunteer funded by the Australian Government. He discusses his reasons for becoming an international volunteer.
1. Building skills and experience
When I arrived at the Social Environment Agricultural Development Organisation (SEADO) my boss encouraged me to go to the field with the staff to see first-hand their work in providing home-based care for people living with HIV, the livelihoods training they conducted for affected families, and to see the state of the roads. He took me along to meetings, provided short translations about occurrences and told me stories about the area after people had returned from refugee camps on the Thailand border and memories of the Khmer Rouge times.
It wasn't too long before I was being called on to write funding submissions, to improve training materials for local staff, to conduct project reviews and to show visiting donors around.
I spent most of my time working with key staff, adjusting my pace to learn and teach at the same time, and to figure out solutions that worked in both theory and practice.
It really was sink or swim. I provided advice on technical aspects of projects as well as ideas for organisational development. The buck often stopped with me to ensure the final product was high quality and would meet donor requirements.
My assignment allowed me to contribute skills and ideas which improved strategy and implementation but I always felt like I was learning so much from the local people and much of the credit for our achievements should be theirs.
2. Volunteering is an excellent way to meet great people
Great people are drawn to experiences like volunteering overseas. They are also drawn to helping in their local communities in Australia. I have met many smart, kind and generous people who will continue to do their part. People who took a break from busy careers or others that have made it their career to be an agent for change. I have realised that the world is not so big when you have amazing friends that are dotted around the planet.
I also met many local people who give endless hours to their organisations and communities, who carry a great weight and are a beacon of hope to all that know them.
3. Making a difference and longer term contributions
Cambodia is a wonderful place with a touching history, and like anywhere, it takes time to learn how to operate effectively in another culture and context. I was lucky to stay a few years and to see projects through annual cycles.
The best experience was returning to project locations a few years later to see that people who had trained as peer educators had become staff, some of the staff had gone on to get jobs with international NGOs and some of my friends had received scholarships to study abroad.
I was always humbled that people would say thanks on behalf of their country and would remember Australians who they had met many years before.
The lessons learned, friends made and satisfaction that I have helped improve the lives of others is certainly worth the pay cut, lonely moments and the odd days on the cross-cultural rollercoaster when living in a remote location.
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