Alumni Spotlight: Melissa Ponce


Melissa is a marketer from San Francisco. Her current role at Ebates is to provide Account Management support to large advertiser partners. She enjoys helping others, traveling with purpose, living a healthy lifestyle, hiking, fashion, and beauty.

Why did you choose this program?

I wanted to participate in a program that empowers women; this program is helping women to learn and develop new skills so they can have a professional career and a way to earn income on their own, it was a great fit.

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

The program provider assisted me with my 7-day stay at a local's family home, all meals were included, pick-up and drop-off transportation from the house to the volunteer space. Due to timing, I organized a few things on my own, but the program provider can also help arrange at an additional cost to cover transportation, food, entrance tickets, etc.

I arrived in New Delhi on a Friday and arranged for a private driver picked me up. I hired a private driver because I was traveling solo and I thought I'd feel safer and also I could move faster from place to place. My flight arrived around 2:30 am and by the time I passed through customs it was past 3:30 am. We jumped on the road to Agra and it took us about 5 hours to get there, so I rested for a few hours once arriving and freshened up.

I did some sightseeing and visited Agra Fort. The next morning, Saturday at 5:30 am, I visited the Taj Mahal at sunrise, this was a priceless experience. On that same afternoon, we drove to Jaipur, which took us over 4 hours, I arrived at a hotel that my driver recommended and rested. Finally, on Sunday I went sightseeing in Jaipur, my driver took me to places that he knew it'd be worth visiting, but also we went to the ones on my list. I visited Amber Fort, City Palace, Hawa Mahal, a well in Amer City.

After sightseeing, my program organizer welcomed me at the local's family home and provided more information to start volunteering for the week.

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

Make sure that you do research on the season you go, so you can prepare and minimize any discomforts. It's important you feel well to give the best of yourself when you are there. Also, do research in general about the food, the dos and don'ts, and what vaccines you need. Carry medicine, especially for mosquito bites, anti-mosquito repellant, traveler mosquito net (this helped to not get bitten at night time).

For the program, it would be good to contact the program provider to find out what your assignment will be and what you can bring. I wished I knew that I needed to prepare English lessons and exercises. There's a small whiteboard and I had to teach two groups of around 25 women each on separate class times.

All of the women sit on the floor and many of them don't have a notebook or textbook for exercises. Since they need to practice a lot of vocabulary and grammar, a poster with a list of the most used verbs would be incredibly helpful.

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

Breakfast is available from 8 am - 9:30 am at the house you'll be staying, then you have free time until 11:30 am. You must eat lunch before 12:00 pm because the tuk-tuk will pick you up right at noon.

You'll volunteer from 12:30 - 4:00 pm. The driver will pick up and drop you back home. Once you're back home, it is up to you to decide what you'd like to do with your free time. Since it got dark early, I stayed home most of the week, but some afternoons you can walk to the center to see the markets or shops, and on my last day I went to see the elephants.

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 was traveling solo and being the easiest target for bad people. Also, I was afraid of getting sick or getting malaria. I overcame these fears by doing a lot of research and hired a driver who I knew I could trust. A user from Lonely Planet referred him and then I did research on my own. His name is Balveer from Rural India Vacations.

I was very careful with the food I was eating, I ate no meat at all and I avoided eating outside unless it was recommended. Avoid eating salads and anything raw. To prevent malaria, I took pills before entering the risk area and for 7 days after, I avoided getting bitten by mosquitos during the day and at night time, by spraying Jungle Juice (contains high DEET), wore long sleeve shirts the whole week and used my mosquito net at night.

Did you travel independently before or after volunteering?

I chose to go to Nepal because I love nature and also because an acquaintance met me there. I only had a week left to spend in Nepal, so I did the Poon Hill trail, which is considered a short hike between 3-4 days. Then I did the most of it sightseeing in Pokhara and Kathmandu.