Hi! I’m Steph, a 27 year old English Literature graduate, travel addict and former teacher from the UK. I’ve spent the past year volunteering, writing and travelling around Bolivia and Peru. Personally, I think that volunteering, and the chances it provides to use your skills (and learn new ones!), is the best way to get under the skin of a new country and culture.
Why did you pick this program?
Up Close Bolivia attracted me by their credentials as being community-directed and their commitment to long-term goals, such as sustainability and grassroots development. When I was researching the organisation, I saw that every project that they run – from English classes in the local school, to equine therapy sessions with disabled children and their families, to the Valley of the Moon Children’s Centre - are rooted in empowering and supporting the work of local people.
It’s really inspiring! It seemed like such a rewarding programme, and when I spoke with the founders, Rolando and Emma, they came across as having so much experience of successful and powerful grassroots community partnerships that I just had work with and learn from them!
What is the most important thing you learned abroad?
Volunteering abroad teaches you so much about yourself and how resilient and adaptable you can be in any situation. By the time I started working with Up Close Bolivia, I’d already be in Bolivia around eight months and had learned that life in this rarely-visited country can be tough at times, particularly when you’re working in small communities where few people speak your language. I've learned that you’ve got to be incredibly adaptable and not stress out too much when something doesn’t go as planned, or things change at the last minute.
Most importantly, I've learned that, regardless of where you choose to volunteer, getting some grasp of the local language will be the most important thing that you do. Suddenly, your interactions with people will be completely different, as even with a very basic vocabulary you can be friendly and polite with those around you, which is essential to put others at ease.
You also need to be humble and recognise that you’re a tiny cog in a much larger machine. Listening to others and learning as much as you can from them is probably the most valuable thing you can do, and will make the entire experience so much more rewarding.
What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?
I am always trying to persuade my friends to leave their jobs and volunteer abroad! My own experiences have made me realise that volunteering can actually benefit your future career plans: I know that the skills of resilience, dedication, problem-solving and working with such a diverse range of people from different cultures that I have used during this experience will be invaluable when I return to the UK to get a job.
I keep reminding my friends that travelling and volunteering are viewed as really beneficial by employers these days, and not only that, they open up wonderful new experiences that you couldn’t have back at home. I think that people are often too scared to leave their comfortable little bubbles to embark on exploring the unknown, but the chance to see the world while using your skills and passions to benefit other people is surely one that no one could turn down!
What made this trip meaningful to you, or how did this trip change your perceptions, future path?
Working in the local school teaching English was such a brilliant experience, and reminded me of how much I love working with young people. Although I don’t plan on returning back to the UK to teach, working with Up Close Bolivia really confirmed my desire to work in education, and probably in an international field. The students I worked with were so dedicated and interested in the prospect of learning English – recognising quite astutely how important it could be to their future lives – that I would love to work in similar settings in other countries. For children from small, poor, rural communities, the chances to learn English and meet ambitious and interesting people from other countries can change their lives: it reminds them that they can take control of their own futures and achieve their dreams.
Why should I volunteer in Bolivia?
Having spent 11 months travelling and volunteering in Bolivia, I personally love this often overlooked country. If you want the chance to learn Spanish then this is definitely your place: few people speak much English, so it can offer a fully immersive language learning experience. I also found that the local people, particularly those who I worked with through Up Close Bolivia, are exceptionally friendly and flattered that you’ve chosen to dedicate your time to supporting their community; they really show you their gratitude and friendship.
Added to this, on free weekends you have the chance to explore the local area and the incredible attractions near to the city of La Paz. I would strongly recommend a visit to El Salar de Uyuni (the largest salt flats in the world), Coroico (a tiny, semi-tropical village near La Paz) and Rurrenabaque (one of the world’s most diverse areas of jungle).