Mandi Schmitt volunteered in rural Hunsur, India for three months in 2011. After studying English literature at University of Maryland, she made it a priority to see as much of this world as possible. She is a freelance travel writer who just returned to the US from Tanzania and is currently looking for her next adventure. Her favorite things are organizing her ever expanding library, chowing down on carne asada fries, and researching new places to explore.
Why did you decide to volunteer abroad with Volunteers for Peace in India?
Mandi: After reading a novel about Indian culture (The Namesake), I became fascinated with how different it was from the US and knew I wanted to see India and it’s unique customs for myself. Though I studied abroad and traveled around Europe, volunteering seemed like a great way to diversify my abroad experiences and immerse myself more into a community.
I had never spent significant time in a third world country and I wanted to challenge myself. As this was the first time I organized a volunteer trip for myself, I was a bit lost on where to start.
I decided to go through VFP because their fees were reasonable and their staff was very helpful and prompt with my questions. They had several different project options for India that I could choose. I felt that no matter which project I chose I would be comfortable and supported by the staff.
What was the best moment of the trip?
Mandi: I really enjoyed orientation in the beginning of the trip. I was able to meet lots of other like-minded people who also wanted to make a difference. I ended up meeting one of my closest friends during the week long orientation, and we still keep in touch today.
It was a great opportunity to grow accustomed to all the cultural differences while still in a western community, which lessened the shock. Our program leaders took us to see several great sights, and were very open to answering any questions we might have.
Another great moment was at the first board meeting where all the teachers from schools in the area met. Nils, a German volunteer, and I attended our very first meeting together, as we both taught at an ethnic tribal school.
We didn’t understand much of what was going on because we didn’t speak the local language, but it clearly became evident that part of the opening ceremony was for each teacher to stand up and sing a song. We were confused and incredibly embarrassed to sing in front of strangers, but managed to squeak out Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Tell me about one person you met.
Mandi: During orientation, I made friends with a Canadian girl, Bridgid, simply because she was the only other North American in attendance. But it soon became evident how much we had in common, like our love of books and history, and we immediately bonded.
Over the next three months, we kept in touch and visited each other at our separate projects. It was great to have a friend going through a similar ordeal.
Since our volunteer trip, we have visited each other several times in Canada and the US. She is a brilliant and kind-hearted person, and even though we may not see each other for months or years, we always pick up where we left off.
She has inspired me to continue learning, she always asks deep, thoughtful questions, and she pushes me to look at things in a different way. I’m truly thankful for her ongoing friendship and the support she provided while in India.
How has this experience impacted your future?
Mandi: Before this volunteer trip, I did not know or appreciate all the things one needs to consider before jumping in to a project. Over the past 3 years, I have done considerable research on what it means to be a responsible volunteer.
Looking back, there are several critical things I could have done differently, like research more organizations, ask pointed questions, and ascertain the sustainability of the project I worked on.
Participating in this initial volunteer trip opened my eyes to how easy it is to be a careless voluntourist, which has gradually changed my entire perception, approach and motivation.
Now, it is a goal of mine to help inform others about the pitfalls of volunteering (like taking jobs from locals, creating unstable situations, or being under qualified for a job) and guide them to make responsible, sustainable decisions. It’s imperative for those who have volunteered to use what they learned to help future volunteers make educated decisions.