I stepped further outside my comfort zone than I’d ever been when I disembarked from my arrival plane at Gdansk airport in late June, 2016. I had only a vague knowledge of where I would be in Poland and what I would be doing, some scant words and phrases of Polish, and my only contact with the people at the camp was via the manager’s phone number. Stepping off that plane was terrifying. It was also, without a doubt, one of the best choices I’ve made in my life.
My purpose at the camp was to teach students from ages 12-18 about the English language and American culture. While I was there, I learned about Polish perspectives on American culture, music, and politics. I learned about Polish customs, Polish food, and picked up enough words and phrases in Polish to communicate as a tourist outside the camp. I learned some new things about my own language, specifically related to the formal study of its grammar and phonetics. I also grew in my teaching and leadership skills.
It wasn’t always easy. Some lessons came as a result of culture shock, others because of silly tourist/foreigner mistakes, and others because of my own inexperience. However, spending four weeks at that youth camp was life-changing, and I would highly recommend the experience to anyone who wants full immersion in another country’s culture while gaining valuable life and work skills. So, for all those planning on making the same trip (or doing a similar volunteer experience at a Polish youth camp), here’s a rough outline of what to expect.
1. The kids and the counselors are the sweetest people you’ll ever meet.
On my first morning at the camp, I was completely dazed. I was surrounded by people talking, joking, and chatting to each other in a language that was utterly incomprehensible to me. Only a few of the counselors spoke fluent English, and I felt overwhelmed by the cacophony of voices around me. For a short while that morning I wondered if I’d made a huge mistake in choosing to volunteer for four weeks in an environment where, apparently, I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone. That worry was put to rest when I did my first activity with the kids.
It wasn’t the fact that many of them spoke English at a conversational level that assuaged my fears. It was the fact that the majority of the students were friendly, enthusiastic, and eager to find out what we had in common. In the span of 45 minutes I went from worrying that I’d be trapped and lonely with no one to talk to for four weeks to sitting in a circle with about fifteen happy teenagers, chatting about Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.
Volunteering at a Polish youth camp, you won’t find yourself without a friendly face. Kids will enthusiastically come up and talk to you, and the counselors who speak English fluently are welcoming and willing to converse about a wide variety of topics. And even though many don’t speak English fluently…
2. You will still make friends, despite language barriers.
People are people. They laugh, they play games, they make jokes, they sing, and sometimes they need hugs. No matter what language anyone speaks, those things are universal for human beings. And it’s no different for Polish people.
There were a lot of counselors and kids who were shy about speaking English, or didn’t know enough to make conversation. So we befriended each other in different ways. We played ping-pong and basketball. We shared our favorite music. We taught each other games. We drew and painted. We laughed over my halting attempts at pronouncing Polish words. We swam and played in the lake. We danced to Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.
Many times, making the effort to form those relationships required me to step outside my comfort zone. And every time, I was glad I took the risk.
So when you’re invited to dance at the camp parties, or find yourself pulled into a group of teenagers determined to win a karaoke competition: dance, and sing. Even if you think you look awkward dancing. Even if you don’t think much of your voice. Because it’s not just about the experience of the activity itself: it’s also about doing things with the people you’ve elected to spend time with in their own country. It’s about engaging with them, learning what they like, participating in the activities they enjoy, and making memories with them.
3. You will have a lot of down time.
Some activities with the kids don’t require the presence of a native English speaker, which means that some days you’ll have a lot of time on your hands. You also might not be guaranteed 24/7 functional internet. So use your free time well. Read a book. Write. Practice your Polish. Take pictures. Come up with interesting games/activities for the kids. The possibilities are limitless!
4. It behooves you to know at least a few Polish words and phrases.
Polish is a beautiful language - and it’s also very different from most of the languages you’ve probably had exposure to, such as Spanish and French. It has different rhythms, a slightly different alphabet, and a heavier emphasis on consonants than vowels. Watch some videos, and set aside at least a few days to learn some basic pronunciation. You’ll want to know how to say "przepraszam" and "dziękuję" before you have to use them.
5. You will need to be flexible.
Working at a camp means that the day has a definitive schedule. However, what happens within the time slots for lessons and activities can change very quickly. Sometimes lesson plans just don’t work out, sometimes you’ll finish an activity quicker than you expected, or sometimes the counselor you’re working with might have to leave you in charge; and when that happens, you’ll have to improvise.
A lesson about Shakespeare might easily turn into a madcap adventure where you end up the assistant director of a two-minute sci-fi/time travel Romeo and Juliet skit. A Q&A about what living in America is actually like might turn into designing and setting up an obstacle course under a tight time constraint. You might even have to lead a whole lesson by yourself - which could mean anything from facilitating a conversation about the differences between Polish and American holidays to coming up with an English-learning activity for the kids with nothing but paper and colored pencils.
If you’re not used to presenting in front of people or leading groups, it might be scary at first. But then it becomes easier. And then, very quickly, it becomes enjoyable.
6. Have fun!
Remember: you’re here to teach the kids about American culture, and learn about theirs. You’ll be working in a very relaxed atmosphere; the kids are polite and interested in what you have to say and in interacting with you, and the counselors are friendly and understanding. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or to ask for help when you need it. You will have support, you will have friends, and you will have an amazing time growing your skills, teaching kids and learning new things yourself.