Blas caught up with Chris Beynon, a final year Economics student who spent last summer volunteering in Burundi, a small country in central Africa with Tearfund as part of the International Citizen Service (ICS) scheme.
Can you tell us about your placement and what it involved?
ICS is a British government funded initiative that aims to send 7000 18-25 year olds abroad to experience a different culture and participate in development work. As part of the scheme, I was in a group with three other UK volunteers. One key element is that each UK volunteer is partnered with a local in-country volunteer for the duration of the time that the UK volunteer is in the country.
Apart from project work, the ICS programme encourages all volunteers to get involved with the local community. This was very easy in Burundi as the culture is very friendly and welcoming, especially to us as visitors. As Tearfund is a Christian NGO, we were involved in the local church and in the youth groups that the church runs.
We were also involved in teaching English to sixth form students which was something none of us had expected, but I for one enjoyed it immensely. It was great to see the progression from when we started to when we left, especially in their conversational English. We also organised presentations to the students and the partner organisation on development issues such as sustainable development and climate change; things we had been told were not taught in school.
Why did you choose to go on a volunteering experience abroad?
Having had experience of living abroad prior to starting university, I was really keen to go abroad again. Combined with a free summer between 2nd and 3rd year where I was looking for something that would set me apart when looking for jobs, it wasn’t a hard choice to make! I had looked at other programmes, but the ICS scheme stood out as it seemed to focus on a development and impact as much as personal development.
In what way did the placement benefit you personally and academically?
Personally I was able to develop a number of skills through this placement. Most revolved around team work and people skills. Living together for ten weeks necessitated a fair amount of compromise and accommodating everyone’s expectations. Working on projects also required good team work, especially in communication between the communities we were helping and the UK volunteers as none of us spoke the local language at the start, although that did improve as time went on.
It also allowed me to gain experience of teaching and speaking to large groups. The former through English language lessons we ran as a team for local sixth form students, and the latter through presentations I gave on development issues and ideas again to sixth form students and to those at the partner organisation that were interested in the topic.
I also had to give and be involved in presentations to both Tearfund staff in the country and senior staff at the partner organisation on how the projects were progressing and suggestions for improvement. This gave me the opportunity to practice debating and justifying my ideas, reasoning through possible options as well as negotiating in order to match what we as a team saw the needs were with the aims of the partner and the project.
How do you feel the placement will enhance your employability prospects in the future?
The ICS programme only takes 7000 UK applicants each year, so I hope that participation in this will set me apart. I am hoping to go into the development sector after graduating and thus being able to have worked for ten weeks abroad, with an NGO on development related projects, should stand me in good stead. It gives me the experience of living and working abroad as well as plenty to talk about at interviews and on application forms.
What was the best bit about your placement?
There are much too many to count! The bits that stick in my mind the most are the feeling of being back in Africa; the pace of life, the sense of community and the friendliness of the people.
The aim of the placement was to teach local communities the skills and techniques to make them self-replicating and sustainable. The best example of this, and still makes me slightly emotional, was the success we had in a small village called Songa, about an hour’s drive away from our main base. Having had five weeks of minimal uptake at the sessions we were running, we arrived and saw a crowd of 100 women. Little did we realise that they were all waiting for us to teach them about the projects. It blew me away and it really re-affirmed that we were doing the right thing. Everyone got involved in the training and when we went back ten days later for the second stage there were even more people, nearly 150, all waiting for us and wanting to be taught. This was something we had not experienced before and, for me at least, the whole ten weeks of hard work, arguments and compromise was justified in two mornings of work at this one village.
Why do you think students should consider volunteering abroad?
You get to experience another culture, something that gets progressively harder as you enter the job market. It gives students a chance to do some good, however cliché it may sound. The benefits of volunteering to the community and individual can be huge.
I would thoroughly recommend volunteering abroad. It has been a very memorable experience and one that has provided me with significant training as well as examples to talk about when applying for jobs.
This article was originally published by Student Blas at http://sites.cardiff.ac.uk/blas/become-a-global-graduate/
To find out more about International Volunteering opportunities and bursaries please click here.