Alumni Spotlight: Heather Sinclair


Heather started teaching English in Japan, and since then has gone on to volunteer with Cuso International in Laos. She is a copywriter, house sitter, and lover of living in new places.

Why did you choose this program?

I chose Cuso International because of its reputation, and because it's a Canadian-based organization. When I researched Cuso I found that their support was second-to-none, with pre-departure training, healthcare coverage, housing, and an accessible Employee Assistance Program.

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

Cuso International is very supportive when it comes to volunteer compensation. It was up to me to schedule my pre-departure medical exams and vaccinations, but all costs were covered by Cuso. The five-day pre-departure training was paid, and they also paid for my parking for my Assessment Day (Cuso's group interview). Volunteers are provided a return flight to their placement country.

Once I arrived in-country, I had *another* medical assessment, was introduced to the Canadian government representative in Laos, and the staff helped me get my cell phone set up.

Housing was provided by Cuso, and it was comfortable, clean, safe, and very basic. I was housed in an apartment building with another Cuso volunteer which was really nice.

My Visa was arranged for me, and when I arrived at the airport it was ready and waiting for me. On my first day, Cuso staff brought me to my workplace to introduce me to my colleagues and the Deputy Director General of the institution I would be working for.

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

For someone who's considering volunteering with Cuso, I would say don't raise your expectations too high. Some volunteers arrive and expect someone to hold their hand and show them everything and that's just not going to happen. Other volunteers aren't prepared for living on their own and don't have the life skills necessary to cook or clean for themselves. Really think about living without the comforts of home and how you would deal with that. Because that's what's going to happen.

When it comes to a work placement, often the position is a bit different from the file in the head office in Canada. Things are changing all the time, and volunteers need to be flexible about what they're asked to do in their placement. For example, you may have been hired to advise on irrigation projects, but when you arrive the project may have been postponed and you'll need to find something else to fill your time and help out.

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

Oh gosh, I don't think there is an average day, as it's different for every position! I will say that most positions are typically Monday to Friday, 8am to 4pm. In my position, I had a fairly relaxed class schedule, and I used my free time to prepare for lessons. I could leave early some days, and come in later others.

Because the fridge in my apartment was half-size, I went grocery shopping almost every day after work. I loved going to the markets and getting fresh vegetables and BBQ meat for supper. I always went out for lunch, and there were lots of restaurants near my workplace. In the evenings I hung out with other volunteers, read a book, or did some copywriting.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear?

My biggest fear was that I wouldn't like the work I was going to do, and what I was going to wear (if you can believe it). I wasn't at all worried about the climate, the bugs, the food, or the safety. Once I arrived at my volunteer placement, I realized that there was a lot of flexibility in my job. This meant that I could make it into something I enjoyed, which was a lot of fun. Being a self-starter was really important.

When it came to what to wear, the solution was also simple - Cuso staff helped me buy some Lao sinhs (the traditional skirt in Laos) and then I bought a few on my own. Wearing a sinh at work every day was a bit like wearing a uniform, but it made getting ready in the morning really easy!

Write and answer your own question.

How Would You Have Prepared Differently?

While I was at my placement, I became a contact for prospective volunteers who had questions about volunteering for Cuso in Laos. When I was a prospective volunteer myself, I was offered the chance to get in contact with the current volunteers and I didn't take it. I wish I would have! It would have given me some insight into what to expect and what the job would be like.

If you're given the chance to talk to current volunteers - especially if you'll be their replacement - take it!