For two weeks in March, Julie Gieringer, a 26 year old high school teacher from Arizona, served as a volunteer teaching English to disadvantaged kids in our volunteer project in Peru. Although she considers herself a “sporadic volunteer,” this was the third time Julie volunteered abroad. At home, she has volunteered for a variety of local organizations, and also inspired her students to engage in community service. As Julie prepares to head to graduate school, volunteering abroad is becoming a part of her lifestyle. As she notes: “I would love to volunteer abroad on an annual basis. It is an opportunity to travel, learn, use my skills in a new context and form a more honest and global perspective on the human experience”.
This is the first in a series of interviews with UBELONG alumni that we will publish.
What motivated you to seek a volunteer opportunity with UBELONG in Peru?
I am familiar with Latin America and love its culture, and I have a basic understanding of Spanish. I also wanted to be close to a city where I would have access to museums, culture and other aspects of city life.
What was most frustrating or challenging to you during your volunteering placement?
The language barrier was apparent and mildly frustrating at some points, usually when I was trying to conduct and explain more complicated lessons. Nonetheless, I was amazed at how much I could effectively communicate without speaking the same language.
From what you observed during your experience, what were the three most important characteristics of a successful international volunteer?
The most important one is energy. Especially when working with children, enthusiasm for life goes a long way in motivating and creating a pleasant and joyful environment. Second, I think creativity is important. Because of the limited resources and different backgrounds and cultures of the students in the Peru program, the creativity to find ways that engage the students in a meaningful way is crucial. Finally, volunteers who do not demand familiarity, extreme comfort, immediate gratification and flawless efficiency will likely have a better and more productive experience.
What kind of impact did volunteers have on the community?
The impact is huge. The classes are not offered as temporary fixes or distractions, but rather as a route towards long-term improvement. In addition to being enjoyable for the students , the classes help change the way they think about education, their post-school lives, diversity in the world and so forth. Providing the students access to English, materials, enthusiastic people and other skills is not only a practical gift but also helps affirm the students’ worth and sense of community.
How did the people in your host community perceive the role of international volunteers like you?
I was shocked at the acceptance and kindness offered to me by the local people. Parents and students warmly greeted me and even waved at me from afar when I was walking in the streets. The kids were appreciative and excited about the programs, which made their families pleased and grateful. I think they were also impressed by the desire of the volunteers to live, eat, travel and learn alongside them and saw us as academic and social mentors to their children.
What did you learn about yourself during your experience?
I learned that I need very little to be comfortable. I realized that I am good at adapting to new environments and new people, and I should probably make use of that unearned gift. In Peru I also learned that people are far more similar than different.