If you didn’t manage to secure a summer internship or if you simply didn’t fancy working away that long precious summer you only get as a student, then you might be wondering what on earth you’re going to do with those three months of freedom which come as a blissful reward following the stress of final exams. Naturally, if you’re a postgrad, these months will be absorbed into a black hole we like to call ‘dissertation’, but if you’re not a postgrad then the question remains.
Three months seems like an endless amount of time – you could finish and start all those TV shows you’ve been putting off during term time, you could spend meaningful time with family and friends, you could travel, you could do absolutely nothing . . . But how about doing something which makes a lasting impact? Something you’re most likely to remember your whole life?
How about volunteering?
And no, I don’t mean doing a day’s work at your local charity shop putting price stickers on picture frames (though that is also a good way to make an impact). What I have in mind is packing your bags, grabbing your passport, and jetting off to a new country for six weeks (or whatever the duration may be) and seeing life from a different perspective. Sounds a lot like going on holiday? Well, that’s where you’re wrong, my friend.
In my first year of university, I promised to myself that I would do ‘something’ with my summer. The world suddenly seemed so big and spending three months at home surrounded by English countryside and many sheep (as lovely as that can be) just didn’t appeal. Like many, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in terms of career, so doing an internship and tying myself to a job I may or may not have enjoyed didn’t seem like the best choice either.
I knew I wanted to go abroad, but many of the international programmes were expensive and required you to fundraise large sums – friends that attempted such programmes often ended up covering at least a part of the fees from their own pocket, which wasn’t an option for me. Then I came across an opportunity – teaching English in China. Yes, cliché, I know! But this programme was free, provided accommodation, meals, and cultural exchange activities, so I applied.
Fast forward to June and I was alone on a plane on my way to Xiamen, not knowing what to expect from my six-week all-inclusive stay as an English teacher, but certainly excited. My job consisted of teaching English to Chinese children at a summer camp, and to supervise various educational and entertainment activities, which included culture fairs, visits to theatres and to museums. There were around twenty volunteers in my cohort, most of us students. I met people from America, Spain, and of course China, and it was amazing to learn so much about China and its culture from the inside – not as an observing tourist, but as a participant in local life. We ate and lived at a university campus, mingling with students and experiencing all the area had to offer in terms of entertainment, culture, restaurants, and bars.
To say that it was one of the best experiences of my life would not be a lie. I met friends with whom I keep in contact to this day, saw things I never expected to see, and made some incredible memories. My trip culminated in a spontaneous three-day trip to Beijing, spontaneous because of issues with flights. Always check you have enough time in between transfers, people!
Of course, it wasn’t all peachy, as living for a month and a half in a country so different to one’s own can be a challenge. But looking back, I should have complained less about the humidity and the sometimes-questionable canteen food, and enjoyed each moment more.
The experience doesn’t look too shabby on my CV either, as it provided me with many highly sought-after soft skills such as communication, teamwork, and the ability to adapt to unfamiliar environments. Ever tried to communicate with your Uber driver when neither of you speak the same language? Volunteering abroad certainly makes you stand out, and if there’s ever an enquiry about an interesting personal fact, you’ll never be short for words.
To conclude, as we always should at the end of a good essay, I recommend volunteering abroad to every student, as this is not an experience you’re likely to have after you start working a full-time job. As I mentioned in the beginning, volunteering will make a lasting impact, not only on you but also on the people you interact with during your time abroad. Teaching was an incredibly rewarding experience; even if we couldn’t speak the same language with the children, there’s something universal that we all share which enables us to connect. If you know what you want to do with your career, then that’s great – go for it! But remember that you have a whole life of work ahead, so try to aim for a balance while you’re still young.
And have some fun!
P.S. For anyone interested, the name of my programme provider was LOVVOL. Here is their website http://www.lovvol.org/