Alumni Spotlight: Anna Maria Reisenbichler


Why did you choose this program?

When I started to look for volunteering opportunities, I was mainly interested in projects focused on environmental actions and climate change. Apart from the actual work done within the project, it was important to me to choose an organization that was well established and transparent. RVA’s Climate Compliance Conference has been running for almost 10 years now, and RVA itself has an even longer local history.

Once you apply to join a program at RVA, you will go through a process of video chats with some staff members to get some information on the structure of the program, day to day life on site and so on. You’re also asked to reflect on some written pieces about these topics. I really enjoyed the application process and the more I got my mind into the program, the more eager I got to actually participate.

In the end, the biggest selling points for me were the fact that the 6-month program starts off with a studying period to prep participants for the tasks ahead with a solid base of theoretical and practical knowledge. Also, the strong focus on communal living and a self-sustainable lifestyle was very appealing to me. After all, we’re always stronger as a team! Oh and to be honest, the imagination of living on a tropical island in the Caribbean isn’t too shabby either ;)

Jokes aside – the climate was an important factor for me too. I need the sun, and I just thrive and perform better in warm, sunny climates.

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

RVA provided valuable information on flight itineraries, a packing list and so on, as well as some general information about life in Saint Vincent, safety, etc., and staff members were always available to ask further questions to. Certificates of enrolment and letters for the immigration process were provided too.

In the end, you do need to take care of your travel schedule and travel insurance on your own. However, RVA organized a pick-up from the airport and transport to the site on the day of arrival.

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

I think the most useful and most universal piece of advice I can give is this: Free yourself of expectations and preset goals.

You’re going to encounter people from all walks of life, live with them, and learn with them – and all of this is happening while you are in a completely new environment and you find yourself embedded in a community with a culture that’s most probably very different from your own. You’ll find yourself in situations you never imagined to ever be in, least mastering them. Come with an open mind, start with a clean slate – and let what you encounter shape and guide your experience.

Allow yourself to marvel and wonder, and be curious.

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

Details about the program based on the feedback of alumni, resulting in an ever-changing schedule. So my experience might just as well differ from other alumni quite a bit. However, there is a fixed framework shaping the days and weeks.

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are at set times (7 am, 12 am, 6 pm). After breakfast, everyone chips in to get things set up for the day – this can be cleaning duties, fruit and vegetable harvesting, maintenance tasks etc. The rest of the mornings are filled with activities depending on the stage of the program you’re at at the time. The same goes for afternoons. Some evenings we watch movies or documentaries, play games, etc.

Two mornings every week are dedicated to sustaining the school. This means that everyone living at the school participates in tasks that either help the school’s food production (to push self-sustainability as far as possible) by working in the kitchen garden, the fruit forest etc, or tasks like maintenance of the living areas, energy production and so on.

One afternoon a week is dedicated to the Common Meeting, where everyone living at RVA gathers to discuss pressing topics concerning running the school, afternoon activities, ongoing projects and so on. This is where everyone gets to put in their two cents, and decisions are made as a collective.

One day a week is completely free, and many people choose to explore the island on these days – hike, dive, snorkel, visit one of the many magnificent waterfalls, or just relax and sunbathe at the beach. Really, the lushness and natural beauty of Saint Vincent is something that doesn’t come close to anything I’ve ever encountered before!

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

I think my biggest challenge (not so much fear) was the feeling of being a little lost, caused by leaving my well-known and comfortable environment, moving to the other side of the world, knowing no-one there, starting something new from scratch. It’s the feeling of being uprooted, and it can be scary. But I soon realized that every single person in my team was going through something very similar, and feeling exposed and vulnerable can allow you to reach out and connect to others in a completely honest way, allowing new, deep friendships and comradeship.

Starting anew and leaving well-known environments will always be daunting, but it can also bring so much good into your life if you use the opportunity.

Which experience during your internship has left the most long-lasting impact on you?

A core part of the Climate Compliance Conference program is designing and building organic backyard gardens (based on Permaculture principles) with and for families in the communities, to allow them to eat lots of healthy, fresh produce that they grow themselves. Aside from the health benefits, this also leads to more financial independence, and it contributes to promoting organic, regenerative farming practices, which are crucial for slowing down climate change and mitigation of its effects.

During my stay at RVA, I built three of these gardens (together with other volunteers and many helping hands). I remember how daunting and overwhelming the task seemed in the beginning, but what has stuck with me, even more, is how the change of a barren ground backyard to a flourishing, productive garden affected its owners, how proud they were and how enthusiastic they were to keep up what we had started together.

Seeing a small project literally grow from dirt into something so beautiful and full of life was an experience that was extremely rewarding to me, and has influenced my life choices after completion of the program in a long-lasting manner.