Name: Anna Kapolka
Hometown: Garfield, New Jersey
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English, Polish, Spanish (intermediate)
University: Princeton University
Degree: Public Policy
Past travel experience: Newbie
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for Children with Disabilities in Hanoi, Vietnam
Duration: 8 weeks
Start month: June 2016
Claim to fame: Anna transitioned to Princeton University as a first-generation college student from a low-income immigrant family from Poland.
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I discovered UBELONG through my university’s international internship program. Browsing through different programs online, my attention was immediately drawn to UBELONG’s care taking program in Vietnam. I am still at a loss when people ask me about my career aspirations, but I do know where my passions lie. Chief among them are children. Caring for children with disabilities seemed like a wonderful opportunity to engage with this passion in a meaningful way. It also seemed like the perfect time, as I am at a point in my life where I am still learning about myself and the world around me, and I still have the freedom to sacrifice my time for others rather than for personal matters such as a family or career.
I was also very excited by the prospect of working in Hanoi. I’d never traveled to Asia and it’s always exciting to travel to new places and experience new cultures. Volunteering in Vietnam was also appealing as I knew that I would have the potential to aid in creating a greater social impact than I could have by volunteering with disabled children near my home, as the rights of disabled individuals are significantly more limited in Vietnam than they are in the US.
What was your impact on your volunteer project?
I left my volunteer project feeling that I had given all of myself that I could as a foreigner volunteer. Eight weeks is but a fleeting moment, but that was only all the more motivation for me to give the kids in my classroom all of the attention I could. My effort to be constantly present in the classroom paid off countless times over when my last week I could look back to my first and realize that there were children who had truly benefited from my presence. The starkest evidence for me of this was the behavioral change I observed in a 4 year-old autistic boy named Dang.
My first day volunteering was another volunteer’s last day. I remember her pointing to Dang and telling me that he had a terrible temper – he would get unreasonably upset about small things and he would pinch and bite. And indeed my first week it seemed like her warning was spot on. Dang was ill-tempered and it was difficult to engage him in any activity. While admittedly he wasn’t exactly my favorite at the time, I was patient and kind and would go out of my way to give him individual attention. I don’t even know when it happened but there came a moment when I realized that Dang hadn’t thrown a tantrum in weeks and that he was practically glued to my side. The most rewarding memory of my entire experience in Vietnam came one of my last days when Dang, smiling and giggling as I handed him the pieces, finished an entire puzzle by himself. The teachers in my classroom looked on smiling because presumably like me, they were used to Dang refusing to do anything but obsessively and insistently spin individual puzzle pieces on the desk. It took 8 weeks to build up towards those short but amazing minutes. Some volunteers only have 2 weeks. For this reason I created a document with profiles of the children and advice for future volunteers, so those coming for a short period of time could hopefully use it to have a significant impact, and those coming for a longer period of time could build off of it and hopefully by the end of their stay be in a position to add to it.
What were your major challenges?
My first week volunteering was the most challenging. I spoke no more than a few words of Vietnamese while the two teachers in my classroom spoke no more than a few words of English. I wandered around the classroom the first few days, not entirely sure what I should be doing, unable to do much since the children still weren’t comfortable with me. I was also still unfamiliar with the city and the culture and had yet to make friends, so that all compounded into a stressful start. Even more frustrating than the language barrier was feeling helpless and useless in the classroom. I hated the idea that I might be more of a burden than any help.
However, by week 8 I felt completely within my own element, both in the classroom with the children and within the city. In the classroom it was really just a matter of getting a grip on the daily routine and building a bond with the kids. By the end my greatest challenge in the classroom was that my presence would disturb the teacher’s lessons because the kids would get distracted and want to play with me. And I was amazed by how quickly Hanoi became home. Everyday started with an early run in a park that was crowded with people exercising. I quickly got to know who the regulars were, and every so often I had a surprise companion jog alongside me, eager to talk to the foreigner. Every morning on my bus ride to work I talked with a young woman hoping to improve her English, and every afternoon I spent exploring the city with my fellow volunteers. Needless to say, the first few tense days were nothing compared to the incredible weeks that followed.
In a sentence or less, how would you describe the locals you met?
Sometimes so kind and thoughtful that it was unbelievable, and almost always very eager to talk, listen, or help.