Alumni Spotlight: Heather Carter


Heather is a recent graduate from the Dance Program at York University in Canada. She studied abroad in Chichester, England during her degree, and returned in April of this year from a three month backpacking trip volunteering and travelling through Central America. She caught the travel bug early on and is always looking for the next adventure.

Why did you choose this program?

I took a quiz online that would tell me the best location to volunteer in based on my personality (I actually think it was on the IVHQ website) and it came up with Guatemala.

That stuck with me, as I had never thought about going to Guatemala, but started to do research about it after taking the quiz, and once I saw pictures I was on board!

As for the program I chose: Eco-Agricultural Conservation, I have always been interested in picking coffee beans, since I was quite young, I'm not sure why but that's been the dream!

So the fact that I could do that in a beautiful country and also give back to other people and communities, felt like a really great match.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

The program provider pretty much did everything for me once I picked my program! They scheduled pick up from the airport, showed me where the local organization location was and dropped me off at my host family (which they organized for me).

The local team then gave me my orientation and a tour of the town, and then one of the staff members went with me to my location (again, organized by them) the next morning, so I knew where I was going!

The only thing I planned on my own was taking Spanish classes in the afternoons, and the local organization was amazing at facilitating that, as they were the ones providing the lessons.

After my two weeks volunteering, I organized my onward travel, but the staff was there to help and answered some questions for me and actually put in a few phone calls for me to help get some information that I couldn't find on my own. They also offered excursions that I could have participated in, but they didn't align with what I wanted, but they offer that as well!

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

I honestly would recommend knowing at least some basic Spanish. It's not that it's impossible to get by without it, it's definitely doable, and the people are great about trying to understand you and trying to make themselves understood, but I found my experience was so much more meaningful when I could converse with the farmers I was working with, and my host family as well, and also in their language.

To me, it showed my respect that I was willing to learn (or attempt!) their language, while I was a visitor in their country, instead of just expecting them to know English.

I would tell anyone thinking about going overseas to do it! Do your research, go see a travel doctor - I had to get a couple of shots - because travel is going to be uncomfortable enough at times, you don't want to add ridiculous and foreign diseases into the mix; food poisoning was bad enough! (Although my travel doctor gave me medication for it, so I was back on my feet within a few hours). The more you know, and the more prepared you are, the better!

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

My days were quite busy on this program - but that was my fault! I woke up at 6:15, got ready for the day, then met my host mom in the kitchen for breakfast at 6:30, and was out the door by 7.

I went to the bus station and caught the local bus, and arrived at the coffee cooperative by 7:45, to be ready to go at 8. We would then meet one of the farmers at the cooperative, and go from there together, whether it was to his land on the volcano to pick, or to his house to sort beans. We'd do that for four hours, and be back at the cooperative for noon, when we'd catch the bus back into town.

I would have lunch at one of the restaurants in town, and then be back by 2 pm, when I started my Spanish lesson, which ran until 6 pm.

At that time, I would head back to my host family's house for dinner with everyone. After that, normally I was pretty tired! Once or twice we would go out for the evening in town, but normally we would all hangout on the rooftop terrace of our house and talk and catch up about the day, and hangout with our host family.

We'd watch movies or play playstation with our parents and their kids, or our parents would come up on the rooftop and hangout with me and the other volunteers living there! Then I'd shower and go to bed to wake up and do it all again!

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

My biggest fear I think was safety - being a young female travelling solo, there were many people who warned me of the dangers of Guatemala. I know myself and I know how to handle a variety of situations and I know that it's all about the situations you put yourself in, or are vulnerable to.

I knew that I had to be smart, but that rule applies anywhere in the world, in my opinion. There are good and bad people everywhere, there are good and bad situations everywhere, you just have to know what situation you want to be in, and then make decisions that are conducive with that outcome. I didn't walk alone after dark, I didn't go down random empty streets when I was alone, I didn't engage with men that were whistling at me or yelling things at me, I just kept walking.

My host family was very adamant about safety and they were all helpful about ways to keep us safe. I never had any issues while I was away, and think I only ever really felt unsafe when I was being paranoid, for no reason. Be smart and you'll likely be safe!

A story about my favorite day on this trip:

It was my birthday, and I had volunteered in the morning, gone out for a great lunch with some other volunteers, to my favorite restaurant in Antigua, and had my class in the afternoon.

I didn't really have a lot of time to celebrate until the evening, after dinner. It turned out that the other volunteers had all got little gifts for me to open at dinner! My host mom had gotten me a "Borracho" cake which is a famous cake in Antigua that, and they had candles and all sang me happy birthday, it was very special! We then all went up to the rooftop for the evening (like every other! The view was incredible!).

Another thing to note about Antigua is that almost every night there are fireworks -- someone is always celebrating something!

For my birthday, I was really hoping there would be fireworks to end off a pretty spectacular day. It was getting quite late, and there hadn't been any, and my friend turned to me and said, "Heather, my one wish for you was that you had fireworks on your birthday, I'm sorry you didn't get any." As she finished her sentence, we heard a crackling noise in the distance, and it was actually one of the volcanoes erupting! Nature's fireworks, it was absolutely surreal, it was the first and only time I ever got to see any of the volcanoes erupt while I was in Guatemala!

A truly amazing end to a truly amazing day.