Name: Renee-Marie Laurent
Hometown: Princeton, Kentucky
Nationality: United States
University: University of Kentucky
Degree: Agricultural Economics
Occupation: Sales Representative at Dow AgroSciences LLC
Languages spoken: English and Spanish (beginner)
Past travel experience: Newbie
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for Disadvantaged Youth in Merida, Mexico
Duration: 1 week
Start month: January 4, 2016
Claim to fame: Renee was the first one in her family to travel outside the US!
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I was looking for a Study Abroad experience that wouldn’t put me behind in school but still gave meaning with the shorter time out of the country. I had friends that participated in the first UBELONG Service Learning trip from my University the year before and I immediately knew this was exactly what I had been looking for. Having no one in my family that had ever left the country before, I knew I had to do my research to get my peers on board. UBELONG made that easy being such a trusted, respected and safe group to work with all over the world.
What is your favorite memory?
My favorite memory of my experience in Merida was on the third day at the orphanage working with the boys with disabilities. Two of the more active boys of the group had finally become comfortable around us and had actually yelled with excitement when we walked in that day. During our daily walk outside one of the nurses found out that we were interested in learning to salsa dance during our time in Mexico. Without us knowing the word was passed around among all the caregivers and as we walked back inside we were greeted with salsa music and 2 of the nurses pulled us in to dance!
No matter how basic we both were in each other’s languages we found a way to communicate and learn, no matter how many toes were stepped on and how many breaks we had to take from laughing at our lack of rhythm. As the dance lesson continued one of the boys bound to a wheelchair rolled my way and cut in to help teach me to dance. It was absolutely one of the most heart-warming experiences I have ever been a part of and a day I will never forget.
What did you take from the experience?
This experience taught me many things not only about the world around us but also about myself. I left with a deeper understanding of another country’s economy, social standards and way of life, both good and bad. I took away a greater appreciation of what it truly means to be happy. Never have I been faced with such joy in tasks and jobs that the average American would find miserable. The focus of family, culture and kindness towards others is something the people of Merida instilled in me and pushed me to pass on. I left Merida with a newfound appreciation for what makes a person truly happy and an open mind to where people find that happiness.
What advice would you tell a future volunteer?
My first advice would be to not let the size of the city overwhelm you. Merida is a large place with a constant line up of events and activities. I found I enjoyed myself the most when I decided to get out of my comfort zone and try all the different foods. I made myself speak Spanish even if the store-owners were bilingual. I forced myself to truly live in the culture around me and for that I believe my experience was so much more rewarding.
When volunteering be ready to do jobs that are dirty or not what you may have woken up that morning wanting to do. I know that every time I felt like I was doing nothing important I had to stop and make myself think to the future and how this one small job was helping someone finish the next step whether I was there to see it or not. If you go in with a positive mindset, you will not only leave an imprint behind but also take so much more with you when you go.