Name: Pilar Lucena
Languages spoken: Spanish, English (fluent), French (advanced)
Occupation: Financial Risks Consultant at Deloitte Advisory
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Microfinance and Income Generation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Duration: 8 weeks
Start month: February 2015
Claim to fame: Worked as a Camp Counselor in Gig Harbor, Washington.
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I decided to become a volunteer because I wanted to make the most of the months off I took between quitting my job and starting a graduate program, being exposed to different challenges from those I was used to and having the opportunity to travel and get to know new people and places.
A friend of mine told me about UBELONG and I saw they had a program in Cambodia that interested me. I thought I could offer to this project the skills I had acquired working as a financial consultant. Additionally, because I had never been in Southeast Asia before, I valued positively all the information UBELONG offered to the volunteers before going to the field, and that’s why I decided to enroll in this project through them!
What was your impact on your volunteer project?
For two months I worked with a local NGO on one of its projects: a social enterprise that sells local products on behalf of Cambodian farmers. This enterprise has been struggling to be profitable and sustainable in recent years, so I, along with Michael, another volunteer, carried out a thorough analysis of the enterprise in order to suggest a new strategy and design a business plan for the next three years. We also designed a market research in order to assess whether it made sense for the enterprise to market new products that could be produced by the farmers.
Overall, it’s been an amazing experience. We’ve had a very direct contact with the workers of this social enterprise, interviewing them regularly, teaching them new ways of doing things and working along with them to improve our communication with locals that did not speak English fluently. We are aware that our project was ambitious and that probably most of the thing we suggested will not be accomplished in the next three years, but it has been a starting point for the strategic decisions that the direction of the organization has been taking in recent months.
What were your major challenges?
I would highlight two major challenges I had to face during my experience as a volunteer in Cambodia. Firstly, the fact that as volunteers, we join an ongoing organization and have to adapt to its rhythm. This means that, because I was going to be there only two months, as soon as I arrived I wanted to get everything done because I knew I had a deadline. However, for the local people in the organization, because they have to deal with many different volunteers along the year, sometimes they don’t have our job as a priority and therefore sometimes I had to deal with the challenge of not being answered as soon as I expected them to do it.
Secondly, the language. Khmer is a hard language and, even if people make a huge effort to speak in English and make communication smooth, it is unavoidable to feel as an ‘outsider’ for not speaking the language. However, this is a challenge with an easy solution: being patient and create a good atmosphere with local co-workers becomes essential to have a complete experience and be able to make an impact.
In a sentence or less, how would you describe the locals you met?
Cambodian people are relaxed, smiley, helpful and very respectful; I never saw anybody in a hurry or stressed by their job!