volunteer abroad ubelong gap year harvard

“I learned I could handle a lot more than I thought.”


Heather Buffo is an eighteen-year-old woman from Shaker Heights, Ohio who took a gap year before starting her freshman year at Harvard University. In February she spent four weeks on the “forest conservation and sustainable farming” project in the Volunteer Abroad in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands and in April one week in the “assisting at an after-school center” project in the Volunteer Abroad in Cusco, Peru. Prior to her gap year she had travelled throughout the United States and visited countries in Europe and Asia. We recently had the opportunity to interview this bright, caring and engaging UBELONG Volunteer.

What motivated you to seek volunteer opportunities in Ecuador and Peru?
I decided to take a gap year before starting college to spend as much time as possible internationally. Having the time to travel extensively like I did is rare and I wanted to take advantage of it. I liked the projects in the Galapagos and Cuscobecause they would push me out of my comfort zone. I would still be supported, but I would be far from home in very different environments. For the Galapagos I also liked that I would be outside doing manual labor. It’s not every day you get to do that in such a beautiful place. Finally, the price of the projects was also very important. I spent a lot of time researching programs and UBELONG was the most affordable and appealing in general.

What was most frustrating or challenging to you during your volunteering placement?
In the Galapagos I wish I could have learned more Spanish. We lived in an intimate setting in the Galapagos and all the volunteers spoke English. I also felt that some of the volunteers were not there to fully experience being a volunteer, or simply not prepared for or ready to adapt to the challenges. They were not as set on working and learning about the local culture as I would have hoped. Perhaps they were too excited about being away from home in a place like the Galapagos. I don’t know, but I dealt with it fine and it never became an issue.

In Cusco I experienced some culture shock. It’s difficult to prepare for how dirty the children were. Some wore the same clothes every day or just switched outfits with each other. Many smelled bad. Also, I didn’t know the full story of their backgrounds, but I knew most came from very difficult homes.  It was sad and very different from what I’m familiar with in the United States.

From what you observed during your experience, what were the three most important characteristics of a successful international volunteer?
First, be flexible. You have to be ready to work and willing to just do it. Don’t make excuses and be ready for whatever is thrown at you. It might be a little bit gross or it may seem disorganized, but you need to accept it.

Second, be patient. There’s a much slower pace of life in South America. Don’t expect to get as much done as you would expect to get done at home and understand that life is different. You have to adapt.

Third, learn about the local culture. Speak Spanish, learn salsa and try the food. Immerse yourself in how the local people live, it’s part of the experience.

What kind of impact did you have on the communities?
In the Galapagos the environmental impact was not immediately apparent. I was only there for four weeks and conservation work takes time because of things like long planting times. It takes longer to notice a tangible change. However, in town it was clear how appreciative the people were towards volunteers. They thanked us for helping to maintain the beauty of their islands and truly appreciated our help.

In Cusco I was only there for a week, I had to leave early because of medical reasons, but I could still see in such a short time that the people who ran the project and the children in it really loved having us. Whether we were coloring or playing volleyball all the kids called us “profe”, which is short for teacher in Spanish. It’s a sign of respect. The children were happy when we were there and for a lot of them who came from difficult backgrounds that is a big change in their lives, even if it is just for a couple hours a day.

How did the people in your host communities perceive the role of international volunteers like you?
People in all the projects were really grateful and excited about us being there. In the Galapagos, when we told the locals we were volunteers on the island they lit up with excitement and always thanked us for our contribution. In Cusco we sat down with our project leader and talked about working together. She explained to us that we couldn’t move the earth, but that we could show the children love and respect. Our willingness and eagerness to help was recognized and appreciated. Outside of the projects people also respected us. In Cusco, which is full of tourists, people thought it was different to be a volunteer and they respected us for going there to make a difference and not just to see Machu Picchu. We were no longer tourists to them; we were people going out of our way to help improve the lives of the local people.

What did you learn about yourself during your experience?
I learned I could handle a lot more than I thought. I can adapt to situations. For example, kids are not my specialty and I was nervous and didn’t know how I would do in Cusco with the children in my project. But I ended up having so much fun playing with them and getting to know them. I stepped outside my comfort zone and I made a difference in peoples’ lives. It made me feel like a million dollars.

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Related post:
Meet Mai Le, a Harvard University undergrad who volunteered with UBELONG in Hanoi, Vietnam on the Teaching English project.