Alumni Spotlight: Sophie Rhodes

During a trip to Malaysian Borneo in 2012, Sophie fell in love with travelling and has since developed a passion for seeing parts of the world less often sampled by tourists. She relishes the chance to learn about new cultures and customs in every place to which she travels and has developed a particular love affair with Latin America thanks to its vibrant cities and rich history!

Why did you choose this program?

I already had experience with Raleigh International following a 3-week expedition to Borneo with them while I was still at school, so I knew that their expeditions were well structured and organized. When I decided to travel during my gap year between school and university, I knew I wanted to do something worthwhile that would also allow me to see parts of the world that were off the tourist trail, as well as push me to do something that was out of my comfort zone - Raleigh was perfect, and from my previous experience with them I knew that I would be supported and kept safe the whole time.

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

As soon as my application to join an expedition was reviewed and accepted and I had paid my deposit, I was sent an information pack by Raleigh International which contained all of the information I needed to know about how to prepare for my expedition.

The guidance touched on everything, from which vaccinations I required and what kit to pack to how much money to take with me and when and where to book my flights to and from. I was given the contact details of a member of staff at Raleigh head office who could help me with fundraising ideas and provide me with support in the lead up to my expedition. Raleigh also set up a Facebook group for all of the volunteers that would be traveling on my expedition so that we could get to know each other beforehand and coordinate our flights so we didn’t have to travel alone.

Raleigh covers all in-country expenses, including travel insurance for all volunteers, so the only things I had to organize myself were vaccinations and flights, but as mentioned before, Raleigh was on hand to offer guidance on this where required.

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

Try and make the most of every single day on the expedition! Accept that, just as in your day to day life, some days will be better than others and realize that the highs and lows you experience will be heightened but don’t forget where you are. You may never again get the opportunity to have those experiences and they only make you a stronger and more rounded individual. It’s so easy to trek for 19 days and stare at your feet the whole time but remember to look up because the views will take your breath away! Play with the local children, try the food you’re not sure about and embrace the adventure!

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

No two days are the same on a Raleigh expedition and the structure of each day is dependent on whether you are on your environmental, community or adventure (trek) phase. Typically, days on expedition start early so that you can avoid the midday heat whilst working on the project sites or trekking. Breakfast will consist of porridge or rice pudding (or whatever else you can concoct from the ingredients provided to you by the Raleigh team) or, if you are sleeping in a homestay, maybe more traditional local food. Lunch and dinner will also be cooked by yourself and your fellow volunteers so try and get creative where you can!

During your downtime, when you are not working on the project sites or trekking, you can choose to do what you like, although most volunteers opt to play card and other games together in the evening. Some use this as an opportunity to write in their journals or take some time alone or reflect on their day. If you are staying among the local people, you may have the chance to attend church services, teach English and even play a game of football with the children during your time off. Days on Raleigh are tiring and more often than not quite physically demanding so most of the time you will find yourself tucked up in your sleeping bag well before 9 pm!

The projects themselves involve a lot of manual labor such as digging trenches, mixing and laying concrete and occasionally carrying heavy loads but guidance is provided throughout and Raleigh works closely with the local people and cooperatives to ensure that everyone is supported and knows what they are doing.

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 before going away on the expedition was that I would feel really alone and homesick and wouldn’t make any friends. Once I arrived, however, I quickly realized that everyone else shared my fears and we were all in the same boat, and from that point onwards, my worries disappeared.

Nobody knew me beforehand; therefore, no one had any preconceptions about who I was and I was free to be myself without people judging me for the shy, somewhat guarded girl I was at school. This helped my self-confidence immensely because I was able to see that I could make friends easily and I did have a good sense of humor or I was likable (which I had never fully believed when I was growing up).

Because of Raleigh International, I am so much more confident in myself now and whenever I travel now, one of the last things I worry about is whether I will make friends because I know that I most likely will.

Any last thoughts?

A Raleigh expedition is a challenge and most volunteers are tested mentally, physically and emotionally at some point during their time away. However, my expedition was undoubtedly the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

I will never be able to shake the pure unadulterated joy and excitement I felt when I turned on the taps outside of our host family’s house (following the construction of a gravity-fed water system) and was told that it was something that they had waited their entire lives for, something they considered to be a dream come true. Raleigh expeditions not only have a lasting impact on those who volunteer: they also have a lasting and established impact on the communities involved in them and that is what I love the most about this charity.

My expedition was over 5 years ago now, but I still speak at information events for prospective volunteers in London because I still remain so passionate about what they do and the experiences they offer through their programs. It’s safe to say Raleigh International was and still remains a big part of my journey!