Christian Petroske is a recent high school graduate from Long Island, New York who is taking a gap year before starting at Brown University. For 10 weeks last year, from September to December, he volunteered with UBELONG in the Amazon. He taught English and served on the conservation project.
What motivated you to seek a volunteer opportunity Ecuador with UBELONG?
I’m taking a year off before starting at Brown to do this sort of thing. I’ve grown up in the Long Island suburbs and I wanted to see how people elsewhere live. I believe in the idea, which has sort of passed out of our culture, that a young man ought to strike out into the world and “find his fortune,” as they used to say. This idea, combined with my belief that one should help people if one has the opportunity to do so, led to my motivation to volunteer. I felt very comfortable with UBELONG and the projects, and I didn’t want to waste any time. I wanted to get out there. I knew that in two and a half months I wouldn’t change the world, but I would learn a lot about myself and grow as a person. And it proved completely true, I have obtained so much perspective, learned so much and grown so much from my experience.
What was most frustrating or challenging to you during your volunteering placement?
Not being able to speak Spanish was a challenge for me. I went to Ecuador knowing how to say “cómo estás” and that’s about it. You don’t realize it, but language is so important and my ego took a little hit initially as I couldn’t communicate like I wanted to, like I was used to. But the learning curve was steep and I studied hard and I was soon patching together rudimentary phrases. One of the best feelings was when the local staff started looking to me to help communicate in Spanish with the other volunteers. I overcame the challenge and it really helped me get even closer to the people I was interacting with every day.
From what you observed during your experience, what were the three most important characteristics of a successful international volunteer?
First, having an open mind. You need to be willing to see a culture not as an American abroad but as just a person who is open to a completely new place. I call it taking off your “culture goggles.” You need to accept that things are different and that’s OK. If you’re willing to step away from what you were brought up with, you’ll find yourself lost in the beauty and complexity of a foreign but unmistakably human culture.
Second, humility. It’s easy to go into an experience like this thinking that you’re there to enlighten everyone with the superior practices of the First World. But you’re there to learn – just as much as you’re there to help – through sharing. You yourself learn so much from the locals and your confidence increases a lot as you engage with them. You need to be humble. You’re not going to change the way things are but you can share your ideas, as well as bring positive energy, and that’s valuable.
Third, you need to stay engaged. You might feel vulnerable as your thrust into completely new situations and surroundings, and it’s easy to withdraw. But you really do need to be present and engage with the activities and people around you. It’s so important – the only way to successfully connect with the people and learn at work is to remain fully committed to being, right there and then.
What kind of impact did you have on the community?
I was there for two and a half months, which isn’t a very long time. I couldn’t have made a huge impact, but I believe I still made one. For example, one of the best feelings was when I was teaching in the local school and had the opportunity to lead the kids all by myself. My Spanish at that point was good, and I was able to connect with the students and emphasize how important education is. All I really hoped to do was plant a seed in their minds that there’s a world beyond Ecuador and that education is the key to understanding it. I hope they remember me as a volunteer who brought something newer, more exciting than they’re used to seeing in the classroom.
How did the people in your host community perceive the role of international volunteers like you?
Initially people thought I must be very rich because I was coming from so far away. But everyone was very friendly and willing to help me, especially when they saw I was there for the right reasons, which was to help and learn from them. They respected how hard I was working. One old woman even came up to me and some other volunteers and expressed her gratitude by telling us that we were sent from God. That was a very moving moment.
What did you learn about yourself during your experience?
I learned a lot about myself. I was really nervous going into it. I was worried about fitting in. But I ended up doing well and having an amazing experience. My confidence has improved tremendously. I feel more comfortable in my own skin. I better understand the human condition. I’m also more aware of my own potential and that I can do a lot, much more than I might have previously thought. The world seems huge when all you know is CNN or a resort you go to with your parents on vacation, but living on the reserve opened my eyes to the similarities which connect us as a species, which make each of us human. I think the world is much realer to me now than it was, and I hesitate to say “I know more about the world” because now all I really know is that there is so much more to learn.