My junior year of high school ended, I had just gotten my braces off, and I was sitting at an airplane gate alone for the first time. At 16 years old, I was participating in a volunteer program in Ecuador, a country I had only barely heard mentioned in my high school Spanish class. Looking back 9 years, I was extremely lucky that my parents supported me to go on this adventure beyond my comfort zone so early in my educational and personal development. Numerous solo travel experiences later, volunteering abroad in high school was a crucial moment to gain a perspective that continues to guide my decisions.
Exposure to Nonprofit International Development
Volunteering in Ecuador was a first glimpse at the complicated relationship between, globalization, tourism, and international development, and the experience inspired a further investigation into both the intentions and impact of nonprofit work. As my group worked side-by-side with indigenous communities to construct Spanish language schools and fix infrastructure to allow tourists to come to these more remote destinations, I was not only pushed physically, to mix cement and then bucket shower with cold water but also mentally, to analyze whether their efforts would succeed and what impact the presence of a group of American teenagers had on their way of life.
The field of nonprofit work is enormous, with organizations addressing issues from disaster relief to literacy and career options located at desks and in tents. As I came to the conclusion that any future I might have in nonprofit work was unlikely to be in the field, I am grateful that I both had the opportunity to experience the heart of international development work and to have this revelation about myself.
One of the many perks and biggest motivations of traveling abroad as a high school student is the opportunity to actually put the foreign language learned at school to use. Although I had already been learning Spanish for 8 years, it was thanks to volunteering in Ecuador that I gained both the additional lessons and real-world communication to feel confident at a conversational level.
In particular, my homestay week spent with an indigenous Quechua family and two other girls from my program required that we use Spanish to communicate. However, we soon realized that even our simple Spanish was often not understood. When the father came home from work the first night, he explained that his wife and children barely spoke Spanish at all, in favor of their native language, Kichwa. Each night we sat as our host parents used Spanish to teach us the totally foreign language of Kichwa and we then translated it into English. My volunteer program boosted my Spanish, and also opened my eyes to a whole new linguistic world that continues to spark my interest.
Traveling and volunteering abroad, especially when there is a language barrier, is an amazing exercise in cross-cultural communication. Outside of my comfort zone in Ecuador, I was forced to adapt to “Ecuador time”, of being 30 minutes late no matter where we were going, or how to explain myself when words completely failed. As a volunteer, amidst the chaos, I gained the ability to communicate in a way that transcended language or cultural norms, to prioritize communication, and to reflect on how my words and actions would be interpreted by someone from an entirely different perspective. In addition, being in a group with students from all different parts of the United States was the first exercise in acknowledging that cultural barriers exist even within countries.
Humanity & Empathy
During one of our first days volunteering in Ecuador, our group joined local community members down at the river to pass rocks up to the truck on the road. As we swivelled back and forth to receive and give rocks to each other, without a concept of time or progress, we became one united team of equals. This first day was the start of a new type of 360-degree immersion in a community of a completely different history, language and lifestyle. As a result, I truly began to understand how to step into others’ shoes to understand new perspectives and to view all people as part of one human family. Whether volunteering or simply forming relationships with people at home or abroad, these senses of empathy and humanity that form when volunteering have been invaluable and remain a core part of my identity.
Empowerment and Independence
There is nothing more empowering than thriving when being pushed to your limits. During my volunteer program in Ecuador, I navigated previously unimaginable situations and gained a perspective on my teenage life that was liberating. While at times these eye-opening experiences were frustrating to explain, I also had increased confidence in my opinions and understanding of the world. Most importantly, boarding that airplane, solo, was an important first step for me to develop the independence to attend university outside of my region of the USA, to study for a semester and teach English for a year overseas, and to travel for adventure anytime and anywhere I wish. When I returned home, I had a new confidence to take on any challenges that life might throw my way, including volunteering in other new and maybe uncomfortable situations. Thanks to volunteering in Ecuador, I have the belief in myself to change the world.
This blog was contributed by Mariel Tavakoli:
Mariel is a graduate of the College of William and Mary where she studied public policy and sociology. She currently works as a freelance writer in the fields of international education, tourism, ESL, and marketing, after holding several positions at nonprofit organizations. Mariel is dedicated to all things international exchange and spends her free time learning languages and always planning her next trip.