When and where did you volunteer abroad? What was your position?
I volunteered abroad for 10 months in Bolivia with the international development agency Crossroads International. I worked as a Fair Trade Marketing Specialist with the microfinance organization FONCRESOL. I successfully mobilized the exportation of a container of direct fair trade organic coffee. This project not only gave local families a higher economic return for their labor, it also gave the cooperative the opportunity to invest in new equipment, improve their capacity and the quality of their beans. Building a relationship with many of the farmers, particularly their wives, made the fair trade loan project even more satisfying to be involved in.
What made you want to volunteer abroad?
I wanted to volunteer abroad because I was driven to make a positive contribution to communities that do not have the luxuries or privileges I was accustomed to in Canada. With the desire to influence even just one individual’s life, I chose to volunteer with Crossroads International. I applied with Crossroads International because I believe in their mission of “One World”: where women have the opportunity to make their own choices, have equal opportunities and where communities work as a team to improve the quality of their lives.
What made you successful in the application process?
I was given the position with Crossroads International because I had previous experience living abroad, mixed with my extra-curricular experiences during my undergraduate degree. I have a degree in international business with a major in marketing and economics. In my last year of studies I did an exchange in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I learned Spanish and Latin culture. With an academic background to make the right decisions in the project planning and implementation, matched with my entrepreneurial attitude, I was fit for the position.
Did anything happen in your volunteer placement that gave you particular insight into your host culture?
During my mandate I had many opportunities to gain insight into the local culture. I lived with a local host family for the duration of my 10-month mandate. Living with a family gave me the opportunity not only to practice my Spanish, but it also allowed me to see how Bolivians live on a day-to-day basis. While staying with my host family, I spent a lot of time with their housekeeper Petro. Petro became one of my closest and favorite friends in Bolivia. She is of Aymara ethnicity and lives with her family in the city of El Alto, just outside of La Paz. Petro would often share her personal stories with me and gave me in-depth explanations of the cultural and political aspects of Bolivia. She was there for me and made sure I ate my potatoes when I got numerous stomach infections and was in and out of the hospital. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to become friends with such a beautiful soul and to gain a deeper cultural understanding.
Describe an experience from your time abroad that made a particularly strong impression on you.
Aside from the friendships I made, I lived some unforgettable experiences. Bolivia is full of amazing cultural festivals and touristic attractions, which I was fortunate enough to be able to enjoy. An interesting event was Alasitas, a festival that offers everything in miniature form! Every year Bolivians buy miniature figurines that depict their desires for the year ahead, ranging from miniature bags of rice to a miniature colorful hen if a woman wants to attract a young mate. After collecting items that would fit perfectly into a dollhouse, a Yatiri (Bolivian witch doctor) blesses the objects for good luck for the next year. Bolivia is famed for having one of the largest carnivals in the world, where the costumes elaborately interpret different indigenous gods and myths. It is the party of a lifetime, and full of kids throwing water balloons and silly string in the city of Oruro. My favorite festival was in Cochabamba, where I went to a guinea pig festival. Canada’s beloved house pet is one of Bolivia’s edible delicacies. As the only foreigner, I was offered many times to eat the high protein meat, but gracefully declined, as I couldn’t shake or forget the perplexed look on the fried pigs’ faces.
What was the most important thing you learned about communicating in a foreign culture while volunteering abroad?
While in Bolivia, not only did I learn in detail about cultural traditions, but I also learned how to effectively communicate. I took private Spanish lessons twice a week for the duration of my mandate, and hit the books hard to improve my language skills. This allowed me to have a better understanding of the coffee farmers’ needs and how to address them. I also had to learn patience and how to speak and do things at a different pace. Anyone trying to communicate in a culture different from his or her own should try their best to “fake it till they make it.” Mimicking locals’ body language and communication methods is the best way to learn. I spent a lot of time with locals and started understanding local slang and nuances.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
If I could give one piece of advice to anyone who is thinking about going abroad, I would say: do it now! The adventure and life changing experience that exploring a new culture provides is well worth leaving the convenience of 24-hour drive-throughs behind!
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I will continue to live and travel abroad, working to help empower women and communities through entrepreneurship and capacity building. Currently I am living in Kathmandu, Nepal, working with local fair trade handicraft producers, designing new products and developing marketing strategies. I am not sure what is next, but I do know it will be an adventure.
Tara has taken her own advice: "Do it now!"
She has packed many career-building international adventures into a relatively short span of time, and for that we commend her. She is also maximizing the career experience of her adventures abroad by tapping into her business training and entrepreneurial spirit. The volunteer work she undertook has major career value, and she continues to work in the fair trade industry in Nepal which is helping her to build a strong global resume and a solid basis for a potential career in international trade and development.
We'd recommend that Tara takes some time to think about specific career goals over the next few months, as planning your next steps (at home or abroad), can be much more effective when you have one or more specific goals in mind. Whatever Tara chooses to pursue, we're sure it will combine the creativity and business savvy she has already demonstrated in her many trips abroad.
- Tara is building some great work experience overseas, and with a little work, these experiences can help her craft a fantastic international resume. The International Resumes section offers multiple articles discussing the difference between an international resume and a domestic one.
- An Inventory of Cross-cultural Skills will also help you isolate which skill sets you are building abroad.
- It's clear that Tara is keen on making a positive change in the world through her work, and many do gooders find career satisfaction working in the area of NGOs & International Development.