Alumni Spotlight: Samantha Schofield

Samantha is an Australian living and working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

After studying international relations and working in tertiary education management for many years, Samantha decided to travel and renew her passion for international relations by volunteering overseas. This eventuated in being offered paid work working for a development NGO in Cambodia!

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Why did you choose this program?

The volunteer market can be overwhelming! I tried to find a placement that balanced cost with experience and ended up with IVHQ. I also received quality and quick responses to my inquiries from the IVHQ New Zealand based head office team prior to booking which was encouraging. I didn't know anyone who had volunteered with IVHQ, I just went with my gut!

NGO programs are not as widely available as childcare/teaching/animal care, so the choice of provider and destination was more limited. In addition to this, Cambodia appeared, and is, a little more off the beaten track than more popular programs of Thailand and Indonesia (for example). I also wanted to travel somewhere I had never been to.

I also considered program and personal impact. In comparison to other countries/programs offering NGO work, Cambodia's development needs are deep-rooted and extensive. I knew by choosing Cambodia I would be contributing to a country that truly needs volunteer support.

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

IVHQ offers flexibility in experience - you can be as independent as you wish or have your hand held through the entire process. It's up to you.

Prior to departure - I accepted assistance booking flights and went with the endorsed travel insurance. Lists for suggested packing needs, prior reading material, etc., were also provided. I particularly liked the online training offering. You organize all medical requirements on your own.

Once the program commenced - Airport pick up, orientation, accommodation, and meals are all provided. A staff member will even take you to work on your first day! Local staff is available for support as needed to assist with placement concerns or queries. Weekend and/or experiences outside of your program need to be organized independently, but you are welcome to ask the local team for help!

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

Do your homework on the NGO and socio-political landscape prior to arrival. Have an idea of the main issues/challenges, local and international players, and development strategies. You want to be able to offer your help from day 1 but getting your head around the context and situation takes time. The more you can prepare in advance the better, so you can make more of an impact. This is also applicable to other programs, i.e. the needs of children and/or child care centers in your placement country. Placement staff will appreciate you taking the time to learn and are more likely to offer you increased responsibilities, more quickly.

Another tip is trying to stay up to date with local affairs - taking 10 minutes each morning to read the paper goes a long way! You're likely to do this at your workplace at home, so why not here?!? Ask questions, show initiative and actively engage in your surroundings. It'll pay off!

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

Ultimately you get out what you put in! I typically worked Mon-Fri 9-5pm - adding up to an hour on each end for travel. However, it depends on the needs of the placement, at a certain time, and your individual capabilities. I worked on tasks including but not limited to; strategic development, funding proposals, internal policies, program development, and staff capacity training. My roommate also worked with an NGO but focused on media and online engagement tasks, matching her individual skill set and educational background.

When we had big projects due, the staff were in early and home late! This was not an expectation for me as a volunteer, but I appreciated the opportunity to learn and be involved in more meaningful experiences - and if they were offering, why not! On quieter days, if I wanted to leave early on a Friday afternoon to get a bus to the province this was not a problem.

I was predominantly in the office each day. However, I was also provided opportunities to visit the province/s to engage in program implementation, participate in staff events/meetings/training, and attend varied local NGO events/activities. One afternoon, my boss had double booked himself so he sent me to represent at an event at the US Ambassadors House!

Having said all this, there is no average day. It's incredibly difficult to compare one's experience to another volunteer's. How one engages with their environment, tasks, people etc. varies. But I'll say it again, you get out what you put in!

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

Traveling solo as a young woman has its challenges. More so, in countries with profound gender inequality and concerns for personal safety like Cambodia. I don’t say this to scare you… I live here now so it can’t be that bad! But it’s important to keep in mind that precautions one might take a travelling solo as a woman in Thailand or Vietnam, need heightening here. Local knowledge of English and the availability of wifi is also lower.

From my experience, there are no particularly dangerous spots or areas to avoid in Cambodia, and for the most part, locals are respectful. But it pays to be careful and you must always keep your wits about you. Getting to travel on weekends with other volunteers, if you choose, is one of the perks of going with a program. Having said this travelling independently is empowering and I never had any trouble. But Cambodia is not as ‘touristy’ as some of its more popular neighbors, so it’s best not to wander too far off the beaten track. Plan and be practical – if your bus arrives at 1am you should have transport to your guesthouse or equivalent sorted in advance. No loitering. User-friendly transport apps like GRAB and PassApp are only available in Phnom Penh.

Dressing modestly and acting more conservatively are easy adjustments. As is being mindful of gender dynamics/roles. You’ll catch on quick to how men and women behave and interact with each other – or more so, don’t interact with each other. As travelers/volunteers, we have an obligation to do our research before we arrive, to be respectful to the culture, and adjust behavior accordingly. But I know who I am and what I stand for, and there are things I won’t adjust to or accommodate for – like being hassled, harassed or treated poorly. The female voice isn’t very loud here in Cambodia, but that doesn’t mean you can’t and shouldn’t use yours when needed.

Being a smart, capable, and young western woman working in a conservative country has daily challenges. It’s obviously also hard for local women, hence the gender inequality! But navigating these socio-cultural barriers in Australia is no walk in the park either! The challenges are real but are not a deterrent to me volunteering and now living here. If anything, they spur my determination to stay here and keep contributing. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it!