“The program was the ideal balance between volunteering and travel.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Erika Ward
Age: 20
Hometown: Atco, New Jersey
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English, French (intermediate)
University: Princeton University
Degree: International Affairs
Past travel experience: Newbie
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for Children with Disabilities in Hanoi, Vietnam
Duration: 8 weeks
Start month: June 2016
Claim to fame: Erika has volunteered with children and adults with disabilities over the last nine years. At Princeton University, she worked as Event Coordinator and now President for Princeton Disability Awareness.

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I decided to volunteer with UBELONG in Hanoi for two months because I am studying international relations and intend to pursue a career in international disability development. UBELONG offered me an opportunity to care for children with disabilities while experiencing the local Vietnamese culture. Volunteering was not merely a front for being able to travel around Southeast Asia; with UBELONG it was far and away the main reason I was to be there. The program was the ideal balance between volunteering and travel, because I could tell I was being an asset to the teachers in the classroom, but I was also able to see some incredible places (Sapa, Ha Long Bay, Ba Vi, Ba Be) on the weekends.

What is your favorite memory?
My favorite memory of Vietnam was hiking through Sapa. The local office in Vietnam guided us in booking our weekend trip, and I had the most amazing time trekking through the mountains and staying with the local family at the homestay. The food was delicious and the people were so friendly! By the end of the night everyone was playing games and laughing. After a long week of work in the city, I was glad I was able to escape for a while into the rural Vietnamese countryside.

What did you take from the experience?
Working in the center for children with disabilities has given me a lot to reflect on. Learning the individual personalities and interests of the children without speaking any Vietnamese was emotionally challenging, but it has made me a more patient and understanding person. In fact, I will take many lessons from the classroom back with me in America, where I also do camps and workshops for kids with developmental disabilities. Vietnam forced me out of my comfort zone because everything was so new and foreign, but I am now confident in my ability to travel outside of Europe. I know I will be doing volunteer work abroad soon, and my experience with UBELONG has shown me the value in avoiding volunteer tourism companies and opting for programs that place the volunteer work above sightseeing and travel. I am excited both to work with children with disabilities in the near future, and to visit the amazing sights and smells of Southeast Asia and other countries around the world.

In a sentence or less, best advice for fitting in with the local culture?
My advice: Try to pick up key phrases in the native language! Locals appreciate when you attempt to participate in their culture (sometimes you get better deals even!) and it really facilitated my efforts in befriending the teachers and kids at my center.

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Related post:
Meet Anna Kapolka, a Princeton University undergrad, who volunteered with UBELONG at the caregiving projects in Hanoi, Vietnam.