UBELONGer enjoying the sunset in Merida.

“It was a beautiful combination of cultural immersion as well as contribution.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Gabriella Cadena
Age: 22
Hometown: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Nationality: United States
Languages spoken: English, Spanish (advanced)
University: University of New Mexico
Volunteer Abroad: Urban reforestation in Merida, Mexico
Duration: 6 weeks
Start month: July 2018

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
This year I graduated with a degree in psychology as well as as a degree in Spanish. I’ve known for a while that I want to take some time off after my undergrad before looking into grad school. My dad recommended that I look into doing something abroad during this time that would allow me to make use of my Spanish degree. I decided to look for a volunteer program in Mexico; a lot of my family is from Mexico but I have not been able to spend a lot of time there. A volunteer program would be the perfect vessel for me to get immersed in the culture and practice my Spanish. I spent some time researching different programs and after calculating expenses, reading reviews, and exploring options I decided on UBELONG. I had been on vacation to Merida last year and was so excited that there was a program located in this city with a range of projects to choose from.

What impact did you make on your volunteer project?
During my time as a UBELONG Volunteer I worked in the Urban reforestation program. This project is involved with a nonprofit organization. They work with the local community to increase awareness of environmental issues (such as the effects of pollution), repopulate native plant species, provide education to young generations, and overall counteract deforestation. Everyday I worked hard in the “vivero”, doing anything from planting seeds, weeding in the greenhouse, watering, or transplanting trees as they grew. I spent six weeks in Merida, working outside in 90 degree weather. Aside from myself, there were hardly any volunteers. It was definitely not a popular project out of what UBELONG offered. It was very hard work, manual labor, and not a lot of socialization. But I loved it, and I always arrived with a good attitude and open mind about the day so that I could make the most out of whatever we were working on. I don’t want to claim to have made a big impact on my project, but I hope that the members will remember me as a hard worker and a friend.


UBELONGer at the environmental project in Merida.

Gabriella at the Urban reforestation project.


How did you grow personally during your volunteer trip?
This trip was a huge challenge for me, and I knew it would be. I have very bad anxiety and I have trouble dealing with unfamiliar situations and new things. This is part of the reason I wanted to volunteer abroad. I had never been out of the country on my own or spent more than a couple weeks away from home before. The idea of spending six weeks in Mexico by myself terrified me, but I didn’t want my fear to keep me from having an amazing experience. A lot of the time, I am my biggest obstacle. I did not want to get in the way of myself from enjoying my time in Merida. I made it a priority to work hard mentally in order to keep an open mind, allow myself to say “yes” to all opportunities, and remain rational about the situations I came across.

During my undergrad I had volunteered with the Refugee Wellbeing Project as an advocate for a family from Afghanistan. Before meeting the family, I was trained on subjects such as cultural sensitivity, empathy, active listening, and other skills that I felt I was able to fully apply during my trip in Merida whenever I came across a situation that was troubling or unfamiliar to me. My family is very familiar with my anxiety and introversion. They are so proud that I had this experience and are surprised by all of the new things I tried.

Aside from challenging myself mentally and dealing with anxiety, this trip was also a great opportunity for me to practice speaking Spanish. To be able to have conversations throughout the day on different topics allowed for me to expand my vocabulary, improve my pronunciation and comprehension, and increase my confidence as a Spanish speaker. Even the locals who I worked with commented on how much my Spanish improved which was very affirming. Now that I am back in the United States, I am looking for opportunities to keep practicing in my day to day life.

In a sentence or less, how would you sum up your volunteer experience?
My experience as a UBELONG Volunteer in the Urban reforestation program in Merida was a beautiful combination of cultural immersion in an amazing city as well as a contribution of my time and energy into a cause I believe to be incredibly important. Thank you for having me!

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Related post:
Meet Eva-Maria Tipotsch, a University of Innsbruck student who volunteered with UBELONG at the caregiving project in Merida, Mexico.