Alumni Spotlight: Jake Heyka

Why did you decide to volunteer with UBELONG in Cambodia?

Jake: I decided to go abroad with UBELONG to do something productive with my first winter break at the University of Wisconsin. I knew that I wanted to make something useful of the almost month-long break and a trip UBELONG seemed to be the best way to do that.

It was not only my desires which led me to decide on going with UBELONG, though. The leaders of the organization, Raul and Cedric, were very accommodating with all my questions and I knew that if the leaders of an organization would go the extra mile to make sure I was happy with and ready for Cambodia, that UBELONG was a great organization to be a part of. I could not be happier with the outcome and I hope to go back to Cambodia as soon as possible!

Jake and fellow volunteers visiting the Cambodian National Monument

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Jake: The project I was involved in was "teaching english" (as defined on the UBELONG website). Each day, I taught six, one to two hour classes at a local school in the capital city - Phnom Penh. My day started around 7am with a breakfast along with all the other volunteers who were staying at the guest house. Then, I left the guest house at around 7:40am to walk to the school I taught at. Sometimes I would take a Tuk-Tuk instead (the Cambodian version of a taxi). My classes went from 8am until 12pm, when everyone had a two hour break for lunch. Typically, I would walk back to the guest house and eat lunch and then resume with the classes at 2pm. Then classes went for two more hours and we all had a break for dinner at 5pm. My last two classes went from 6pm until 7:30pm, upon which I would walk back to the guest house.

By this time, most of the other volunteers were back from their assorted orphanages and schools. We would hang out around the guest house or go out on the town and explore the great night life that Phnom Penh has to offer. We also had the weekends off which was nice to go explore the nation. Be sure to go to Angkor Wat!

How has this experience impacted your future?

Jake: This experience fortified my goals in life. I had not expected to love another place so quickly or so much. I had been discerning if I wanted to work in development and had taken this opportunity partially to explore that possibility. After going to Cambodia, I am sure that I want to do something which gives support to developing nations. How exactly that will pan out, I do not know, but I could not be so certain of the joy I receive from giving in places like Phnom Penh if I had not taken this great opportunity.

It also helped me to grow as an individual. I learned how I react to situations in which I am completely on my own; having gone to Phnom Penh by myself. The biggest of the struggles was tackling the language barriers and understanding the cultural differences in society and most of all in the classroom. This was not too difficult though because the local NGO had a two-day training about Cambodia and the Khmer people. With it, and the support of the other volunteers, I found creative ways to connect with my students and learn just as much from them as they did from me.

I very firmly believe that this could not have been accomplished in many other places in the world, and I highly suggest that anyone with even the slightest desire to go jumps right in. The Khmer people are amazing, the NGO was fantastic, and the experience was unforgettable.