Why did you decide to volunteer abroad with Projects Abroad in India?
Loretta: Before completing my A-levels I decided that I wanted to take a gap year and travel abroad before university to gain skills and valuable experience. Having been to India on a brief trip six years earlier, I knew I wanted to return.
Projects Abroad was an organisation of which I had heard. Their posters were displayed around my Sixth Form. And I had friends who had positive experiences travelling abroad and volunteering with them.
Although I wasn’t specifically seeking experience in journalism, I enjoyed writing, and a placement on the cultural magazine, the Madurai Messenger, appeared to be an ideal opportunity. I planned to spend six months in India and volunteering with Projects Abroad for the first three months seemed like the best option in order to get experience living abroad with the great support network and contact offered by the organisation.
Projects Abroad helps you to decide and plan your volunteer project. And their website makes it easy to consider your options and take the necessary steps forward - from submitting your application, to applying for a visa and booking flights.
Describe your day-to-day activities as a volunteer.
Loretta: In the morning I would have breakfast with the other volunteers staying with my host family. We would often have traditional South Indian food prepared for us by our host mother, such as idly or dosa. After packing our bags, a group of us would set off for the Madurai Messenger office, just a short walk away.
The daily journey to and from the office was always a highlight, with so much to see along the way. From the groups of school children waiting at the bus stop, to the roadside vendors, the cheerful barber, to the bicycle repair man. Everyone we passed carried a beaming smile accompanied – without fail – with a welcome wave.
Once at the office we would start work at 9:00am and our tasks as journalism volunteers would vary. Although work was often computer based, involving the research of topics for upcoming articles, writing up interview questions, and drafting out articles, we would often be out of the office.
Interviews usually involved traveling to certain locations. And my experience with the Madurai Messenger took me on various trips, from Munnar to Trichy, Chennai to Valparai, and in various sites across Madurai, including a local college where we would often deliver journalism workshops to the students.
Work would finish around 6:00pm and would leave the office, tracing our steps home. We would often pick up a watermelon from the vendor en-route and my roommates and I would head to our rooftop to share the fruit. We enjoyed watching the sunset as we listened to music, peppered with celebratory fire-crackers, from the communities below.
Our evening meals were often prepared by our host-mother. However, we would often catch the bus into the city center to explore the shops and sample tradition cuisine from the vast array of South Indian restaurants Madurai has to offer. Tuesday nights were spent with the other Projects Abroad volunteers, enjoying a meal in the rooftop restaurant of the Madurai Residency Hotel - a regular gathering which seems to have become quite a tradition for volunteers in India.
If you could go back and do something different, what would it be?
Loretta: It is difficult to think of what I may have chosen to do differently. I would not want to change my experience in India and have no regrets about my time volunteering with Projects Abroad.
If I had to decide on certain things in particular, they would be trivial, such as leaving behind the bottles of sun cream which I packed and never used, or bringing a laptop or small tablet which I could have worked on when the office was busy, or for use to contact home on Skype.
What was the most interesting cultural difference you encountered?
Loretta: I found the friendliness and welcoming nature of individuals in India the most interesting cultural difference encountered. It was incredible how warm and kind people were and it was a lovely surprise to find.
Everyone that I met was cheerful and always willing to help with information, guidance and offers of hospitality. It is difficult to feel alone in India, which is great when you are traveling alone for the first time with a tendency to feel homesick!
How has this experience impacted your future?
Loretta: Travelling and volunteering abroad with Projects Abroad has already had a considerable effect on me which I am sure will continue to have a positive impact upon my future. Not only has my independent researching skills translated across to personal study at university, but my experience has helped to enhance my CV. And the portfolio of printed work I amassed whilst volunteering for the Madurai Messenger will be beneficial to any journalism position I may wish to apply for.
Taking a break and travelling abroad before starting university has also benefited my studies. Having gained perspective and experience, I have found that I have been able to adapt better into higher education.
An experience abroad remains with you, even after you return home, picking up where you left off. I am now a far more confident, independent, open-minded and responsible individual, which is beneficial, both on personal and professional levels. I am no longer phased by challenges but actively seek them, aiming for the next goal.