When and where did you volunteer abroad? What was your position?
One summer, I volunteered as a seminar instructor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. As part of this job, I was required to create a daily set of oral English lessons for a classroom of 40 students.
My mantra was that one cannot learn a language without speaking it; and as a result, I didn’t want to lecture my students, but rather invite them to participate. So instead of a classic lecture, I designed engaging activities for my students. I had students act as travel agents and sell a vacation to different cities in the world. I also asked students determine the meaning behind popular myths and fables. Basically, the class focused on presentation, pronunciation and spontaneity. My efforts motivated students to become comfortable speaking English to large groups while being comfortable enough to make mistakes and not be embarrassed.
What made you want to volunteer abroad?
I was graduating university and realized that most of my volunteer and work experiences were centered in Western culture. I wanted to challenge myself to become a better person and to evaluate my outlook on life; and I thought volunteering in a completely different culture would be a magnificent way to do that. When volunteering, one is able to meet and help people from many walks of life, which can be a good exercise in modifying perspectives and exposing yourself to new opinions. Volunteering in a different culture challenges you to accept another’s perspective, to compare their experiences with your own, and to eventually realize that while the two opinions may not match, both can co-exist. Regardless of what I do in the future, volunteering abroad taught me how to respect differences of opinion and outlook. This is invaluable and I was only able to internalize it through my experience abroad.
How did you conduct your search for a position? What made you select your program?
I attended the University of Ottawa for my undergraduate education and was involved with various organizations on campus. I was determined to maintain high academic rankings, but to continue to stay active within my beloved Ottawa community too. The University of Ottawa was very interested in connecting their students with volunteer experiences and had established the Centre for Global and Community Engagement (CGCE). At the time, CGCE was offering a number of internship opportunities for the summer and volunteering at Tsinghua University was one of them.
I was attracted to China because it was (and continues to be) one of the most removed countries from Western society. I thought it would be enlightening to learn about a collectivist culture as opposed to the individualist Western model that I was raised in. Furthermore, I knew that being a seminar instructor at Tsinghua would also allow me to expand my leadership skills. I knew that my oratory, presentation ability and interpersonal skills would benefit from the experience, and this further compelled me to apply to the program.
What was the biggest surprise about your volunteer experience abroad?
The biggest surprise about volunteering at Tsinghua University was the sheer size of the English Summer (TUES) Camp program. The summer camp was enormous, with over 2,500 Tsinghua undergraduate students in the summer.
My past experiences of summer camps had been limited to programs held at local Ottawa community centers during summer vacation and a few sleep-away camps – none of which ever had more than 300 participants. It seemed that everyone on the Tsinghua University campus was taking part in the TUES camp! The students wore shirts color-coded according to their English-speaking ability and all hours of the day the reds, yellows, greens, blues and purples would be seen whirring around campus on their bicycles.
As a student who had just graduated university, I was extremely tired from completing a semester where I had taken a complete course overload, written and presented a thesis paper and organized a charity gala. It was refreshing to see that the thirst for knowledge still existed in others.
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities while volunteering abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
There were so many extra-curricular activities to take part in while I was a volunteer at Tsinghua. After the regular school day, a specific group of volunteers called “Games Group” were actually devoted to organizing and playing games with camp members after hours. The group did a fantastic job setting up board games, dance classes, movie nights and drama recitals for the students and volunteers. It was astonishing to realize that instead of immediately retreating to their dorms after class (as I and most of my undergrad had done), the students stayed and participated. In one specific instance, I remember that educators had to convince students to leave for the day so that the custodial staff could clean the rooms that they were in.
There were also additional outings organized by our students. For instance a group karaoke night or dinner. The group events were the most memorable because I was able to speak to the students on a personal level, outside of the classroom hierarchy. I learned in-depth about many of my students’ lives and built life-long friendships that continue to this day via e-mail and other travels.
How did you finance your trip abroad and did you find any creative solutions to stay on budget?
Although I was partaking in the Tsinghua University English Summer (TUES) Camp program as a volunteer, the TUES Camp in actuality paid both its seminar instructors (my position) and teachers a salary. We were paid 1,500 Chinese Yuan on a biweekly basis in addition to a meal card that was loaded with 500 Yuan to facilitate our stay. Housing was provided free of charge and were personal dorm rooms on the Tsinghua University campus. These dorm rooms were excellent as they were one-person dorms, eliminating the need to worry about one’s personal positions; and each came fully-equipped with a bathroom and shower.
I thought it would be more thoughtful to send postcards to family and friends as souvenirs, rather than expensive gifts. Everyone ended up loving their personalized postcards and many even put them on their fridges.
My flight to China was the largest expense I incurred on the trip. I traveled during the high season and therefore had to pay top dollar for all my travel-related costs. My flight costs were $2,600, but I was able to avoid any out-of-pocket costs by applying for abroad-experience scholarships and travel grants through the University of Ottawa.
How did you deal with the cultural divide during your volunteer experience?
My students actually opened my eyes as to what it meant to be a part of a collectivist culture – or rather, to be part of the “collective.” They represented all the provinces in China and had often traveled thousands of kilometers to study; and they were out-of-contact with their families for the duration of their studies. The students were actively willing to sacrifice many of the comforts of home knew in order to gain and education and benefit their country. Self-sacrifice and perseverance in the face of a great deal of pressure is something Western students and society in general do not understand. It was difficult to realize at the outset that the education of my students was the only way they could guarantee the success and survival of their families. This was in sharp contrast to my Western education, which had taught me that my success would foster a positive future for myself. It was yet another positive lesson that I learned in China that as an individual succeeds through education so does their community.
What was your return like? Do you plan to go abroad again?
Walking in the streets of Beijing, I had seen poverty to such an extent that it gripped me, and was impossible to forget. Beijing’s poverty was the kind where you could see a limbless man begging for food but beside him, you would see a young tourist child throwing perfectly good meal away. Regardless, my return to Canada was positive, and my brush with poverty allowed me to internalize and value the blessings in my life.
I have traveled extensively since my trip to China; I caught the ‘travel bug’ as they say. I journeyed to England, France, Cuba and Guatemala. Being 22 and traveling literally around the globe was life-changing. It is easy to talk about the Eiffel Tower or Stonehenge or turquoise-blue ocean water or volcanoes, but to actually be there, to actually see these things is an entirely different experience. I have learned so much about myself, my relationship with others and of life in my travels and if you travel, I am certain you will find the same!
What did you miss most about home?
Needless of say, I missed my family a great deal when in my travels. We are a tight-knit and cohesive group. However, any homesickness that I felt was diminished by the many Skype calls I had and e-mails I exchanged with my relatives. In our generation, technology has become boundless, and has changed the definition of ‘remote’ and ‘out of the country’. Although I was on the opposite side of the globe, my family was never more than a phone call away. And now that I am back at home, the students and friends I made in my travels are also never more than an e-mail away. My trip to China allowed me to realize that we do not live in a world where distance governs who we connect with; technology transcends these issues and allows for lifelong friendships.
Describe an experience from your time abroad that made a particularly strong impression on you.
Tsignhua University is one of the three elite universities in China that the smartest high school students from across China attend. Evidently, these students are among the brightest in the world, and the majority of them pursue post-graduate education at esteemed international universities such as Harvard, Oxford and MIT.
However, one of my students stood out from this esteemed crowd. He once said to me in a candid conversation that he did not wish to leave China; elaborating that he wanted to finish his schooling and return to the small city where he was raised. In his words, he wants to live a “simple life” in the future, surrounded by his family and supporting his community. This student was the top student in his Chemistry program, but regardless of academic acumen had no desire to earn prestigious awards. Thanks to China, I was able to realize that my life will be one where I am of great value to others and my community will be better because I am a part of it.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
My future plans evolve with each new experience that I gain. Initially when I entered university, my heart was set on becoming a physician; essentially in my 18-year-old mind, I thought the only way I would be able to ‘prove myself’ would be to enter the noblest profession. However whilst in university, I established friendships, had mentors and participated in such amazing experiences such as the one I had at Tsinghua that truly broadened my horizons. My education allowed me to realize that I do not have to prove anything to this world or myself but rather that I must do meaningful work that allows me to grow and challenged throughout my life.
After completing my Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree from the University of Ottawa, I was employed in healthcare research and evaluation (specifically in the field of maternal and neonatal health). My aim is to expand my expertise in this field by earning a Master’s in Healthcare Administration (MHA), which will expand my skill set and allow me to pursue leadership and managerial positions in the future. My perspective has changed in that I now believe education is the key to creating a thoughtful and intelligent society.
Bushra writes eloquently and thoughtfully about her life-changing experience abroad. Her story is the perfect example of how the motivation to go abroad and challenge yourself in a new environment can be the impetus for a completely new life path. Bushra also represents an example of someone who has taken the personal lessons learned abroad and applied them to her professional future. Health care (and health care administration) is a field in which many international opportunities lie, whether one is seeking volunteer, internship or professional work positions. In order to land health care positions abroad, it is often necessary to have had a few months of international health care experience, so we’d recommend that in a semester break, Bushra considers going abroad to intern or volunteer with a health-focused NGO in a third world country. She might also consider improving her language skills, since these additional hard skills can also be invaluable when seeking international health care and health administration positions. We wish Bushra good luck! With her positive attitude, she's sure to find success at home and abroad!
- The All NGOs is a good place to start researching potential international volunteer opportunities with North American organizations. Use the country filters to narrow your search. In particular, those pursuing medical degrees might be interested in the work of Doctors Without Borders USA (MSF USA).
- Read the complete Health Careers Abroad section to get a sense of what opportunities exist for health care professional with an interest in working internationally.
- Building Towards a Career in International Development is an article written for those who are just starting out and who made a decisive choice to work in international development.
- International Development Career Resources lists a range of resources for those who want to build their careers in international development.