Yigit Aras is a bright and energetic student in international relations at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, his hometown. An avid traveler with a passion for exploring other cultures, he spent most of this year as an Erasmus student at the Universite Paris 1-Pantheon Sorbonne, while also interning at the OECD headquarters in Paris, and as a visiting student at the University of Cambridge. In between those international experiences he served in the Medical Assistance project in Cape Town, South Africa, where he assisted on counseling and monitoring HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis patients at a hospital. This was Yigit’s first time in Africa and in an international volunteer capacity. “I learned I am able to give myself to other people without expecting anything in return” says Yigit.
What motivated you to seek a volunteer opportunity in South Africa?
I wanted to see and experience a different culture and find I niche where I could help. I devoted my time in Cape Town to assisting low-income HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis patients who were so happy to share their stories with us because volunteers brought new energy to the hospital. I made an important emotional connection with many of the patients I assisted.
Also, what drew me to this experience was not traveling. What I wanted was to be part of an international group of people. It was an intense international experience with plenty of opportunity to meet new people from everywhere.
What are the three most important characteristics of a successful volunteer in Cape Town?
The most important thing is to be flexible. You need to be ready for the unexpected. The clearest example is that I had to change my project upon arriving in Cape Town because there was a problem with the kindergarten project I had signed up for initially. At first I felt I was not emotionally prepared for a medical setting, but my capacity to adapt to the new situation allowed me to grow in ways I did not expect.
Second, you need to be ready to take risks and be proactive. For example, I had never interacted with HIV/AIDS patients. You cannot hesitate to make a connection with the people you work with. You need to be emotionally strong and face the situation head on, even when you’re completely out of your comfort zone.
Third, having a passion for helping others is crucial. As a volunteer, you are there to give, not to take from them.
I have a fourth one. As a volunteer, you need to make a good personal connection with people. Social skills are really important. Kindness goes a long way when you’re volunteering abroad.
What did you learn about yourself in South Africa?
I learned that I am able to handle difficult situations with a cool head without losing the warmth necessary to help people. I was able to remain calm and kind at the hospital because I knew our mission was to give hope to people.
I did not know I was so flexible. I saw myself in a new light, being able to adapt very well to a totally different culture. I realized my capacity to empathize with other people who initially appeared so different from me.
I also learned that I can live without thinking all the time about my personal stuff, or taking my life so seriously.