About the series: GlobetrottingMama.com aims to help families see the world. It is our belief that while all of our kids will benefit from their exposure to the world, the world can also benefit from exposure to all of our kids. This series offers a glimpse into the future waiting for those families who choose to embrace that philosophy.
About the stories: Recently I spoke with three Canadians who with the help of Cuso International and Global Affairs Canada are working to make the world a smaller place. All three were participants in the International Youth Internship Program – a two-year initiative that concluded March 31 and connected 35 young professionals with non-governmental partners in Guyana, Laos, Peru, Cameroon and Nicaragua.
In our third installment we chat with Caroline MacIsaac in Guyana about the lessons waiting to be learned when you surrender yourself to the experience.
Raise a Traveler, Change the World: Caroline in Guyana
Caroline MacIsaac set off on her six-month Global Affairs internship nervous but optimistic about the job she hoped to do. Her placement with Women Across Differences in Guyana meant that the 21-year old from Nova Scotia would be working with women and teenage mothers to help them access funding and assistance. It’s a topic that is close to her heart and one in which she already had some international experience in – thanks to a previous stint in Zambia. Still, within a few weeks of arriving it was clear that her original ideas would need to adapt to the realities on the ground.
It’s a common finding among international workers and one of the many lessons that can only be learned once they arrive in destination. We spoke to Caroline about her experience in Guyana, the lessons she’s learned and the advice she has for others looking to participate in similar trips abroad. She shared these five tips:
Your arrival is not the solution to every problem. Help where you can and carry those lessons to your next opportunity.
The temptation to want to solve all the problems when you land in a community with needs is strong, says MacIsaac. The fact is, you can’t. It can be overwhelming, she says. “When you go into it you tend to have a lot of self doubt,” she admits referring to her first arrival into the country more than six months ago. It’s a feeling that can be compounded by a lack of resources and a need to build trust. That only changes with time. “Now, I see it coming together more and it makes me feel better that going into another position I can really take the skills I’ve learned and apply them to those positions,” she says. “I think you need to be able to shift, adapt and adjust once you’re on the ground.” Her role on the project shifted as a result of the people she met and the needs she encountered. Goals became smaller but more focused. That isn’t a bad thing. “It’s important to learn how to seek out other opportunities when the one you’re supposed to be there for isn’t working,” she explains. How she works has changed too. Women who need the services she’s offering don’t always have the luxury of scheduling a meeting for Tuesday at 2. “I’ve learned a lot because the clients that use the services often are in very vulnerable situations. I’ve had to change the way I work to better serve the need.”
The people you’re working with, and for, bring their own issues and knowledge to the table that will be factors in your ability to help.
While it was Caroline’s international development background that brought her to the position in Guyana, the fact that the young mothers she works with often have very traumatic backgrounds, factors into her ability to help. “I’ve learned how to navigate those situations and how to work with them in appropriate ways and in a trusting way,” she says. While it may not have been “part of her job description” it was integral to her ability to do the work. “Just like in any other country, Guyana has a lot of social issues that really come into play in this work …so that’s opened up my mind and my perspective and I think that will help when I work with other marginalized populations in the future.”
Like other volunteers in this space, Caroline has extended her stay beyond the six-month internship specifically because she felt she needed more time to finish the work she’d started. Her need to do so surprised her as she was certain at the outset that six months would be plenty of time. “One thing that I realized is that its really such a short time and by the time you figure out what you’re supposed to do, or realize that what you were supposed to do isn’t going to work here, your placement is halfway finished and so it makes it really difficult to achieve your objectives when you didn’t have a ton of time,” she says. “One of the big things in development, and with Cuso too, ” she continues, ” is to ensure that you’re not just doing the work for people but that you’re constantly working with them so that when you leave, the work is sustainable. ” It means that volunteers can’t simply plough through and get things done. “You have to wait for people so that they can learn too and that takes a lot of time,” she explains. “Although I can work on this all the time, a lot of these women and girls can’t. This isn’t their full time job. That’s something I have to keep in mind all the time.”
Be clear on your reason for being here
The notion of traveling abroad can seem sexy but these types of internships demand a different focus, MacIsaac says. “It’s not your voluntourism kind of placement,” she says. “I think coming in with the right mindset is key. I think Cuso is good for that because you actually have to apply for certain positions and you have to show where your skills lie and you have to interview for the position which reduces the chances of having unskilled people come here.” The primary goal, she says, has to be on making a positive impact in the places you touch. “I think it’s always important to keep that in mind that you want to be be able to leave something behind. That doesn’t mean you won’t also gain from the experience, she points out. “I think its a great opportunity and I think that travel in general opens up your eyes to a whole new world and you begin to see things very differently,” she says. ” And whether you want it to be a one-off placement or you decide to continue on and do further placements it will benefit you in the way you see issues and deal with problems going forward. You’re coming here not just for the benefit of you but inherently you’re going to get some benefit.”
Consider an international internship ahead of another post-grad degree.
For most of her cohorts in International Development the focus after completing their first degree was on obtaining a Masters degree. Caroline opted to head out into the field instead. She thinks more people should resist the push to stay in school and consider international experience. “I think travel is really beneficial especially when you’re done university,” she says. She intends to do a Masters degree at some point but feels that when she does, her experience in the field will put her in a better position when it comes to applications and course work. ” My advice would be don’t just go into another degree, get some experience first.”
This post was subsidized in part by Cuso International. For more than 55 years, Cuso International has sent young Canadians to volunteer with partners around the world. Although Cuso International volunteers are now of a more diverse age range, youth volunteering remains an important principle for the organization – giving youth the opportunity to apply their education and skills in a real-world context and learn from colleagues in other countries.
While the International Youth Internship Program concluded March 31, Cuso International continues to place volunteers around the world.
For more information on volunteering click here.
For more information on the International Youth Internship Program, sponsored by Global Affairs Canada click here.