Devon Albert is a professional from Chicago in her mid-twenties who works for the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois. In January she joined the Volunteer Abroad in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and volunteered for two weeks in an orphanage there. She has traveled extensively throughout the United States and Europe. Her placement with UBELONG marked her first time travelling to a developing country. We recently had the opportunity to interview Devon and learn more about her experience.
What motivated you to seek a volunteer opportunity in Phnom Penh?
I love to travel and I’ve always wanted to volunteer abroad. I’ve been to Europe and have plans to go to South America in 2012. However, I didn’t have immediate plans and I had time off from work to travel. After learning more about UBELONGand getting comfortable with the preparation process and the structure provided to volunteers I felt excited to do it. My family and my dad especially were concerned at first about my going so far away. But after talking things over they became supportive, and now that I’ve returned they’ve come to appreciate how great an experience it was.
What was most frustrating or challenging to you during your volunteering placement?
One of the first challenges I came up against was communicating with the director of the orphanage where I was volunteering. She did not speak English and it was hard to know if I was doing what she wanted me to be doing. However, the older children spoke some English and were great in helping me. I also realized how much I could communicate just using gestures and the couple words we each knew in our respective languages.
Adjusting to the Cambodian way of life and how things we take for granted in the US are so different in Cambodia also took some getting used to. For example, even everyday things like garbage collection are different in Cambodia. But it’s part of the great learning experience I went through. You have to look beyond these discomforts. For me it was helpful to focus on working with the local people. They’re very welcoming, and it blew me away how friendly they were.
From what you observed during your experience, what were the three most important characteristics of a successful international volunteer?
First you have to be a good communicator. You have to get over the language barrier, which in of itself means you need to express your thoughts clearly while being a careful listener. There are also cultural differences you need to understand, for example the way people greet each other. What works in the US might not work in Cambodia, you have to be aware of that.
Second, you need to have an open mind. You never know what you might find but you need to be ready to see new things. If you’re close-minded and view everything as an American you’ll dismiss things and fail to learn something new about the local way of life.
Third, being self-aware and understanding what you can bring and what you cannot. You’re there to help, and you do bring new skills, as well as energy, kindness and care. But there’s a lot that you learn from the Cambodians, in fact you might learn more from them than they do from you. You can’t expect to know it all, you need to be humble.
What kind of impact did you have on the community?
At the orphanage I gave the children individual attention, which I think is important. It’s a very crowded and poor place, so individual attention is something they don’t get nearly enough of. I also exposed them to different things. I told them about where I come from in the United States, and I helped to show them that there’s a world beyond the orphanage. I realized how much of an impact I had made when on the last day the director wanted to express thanks to me and asked the older kids to write a thank you letter to me in English. It was touching, and I could see that they appreciated my having been there.
How did the people in your host community perceive the role of international volunteers like you?
They loved us. When I was going through the central markets people came up to us and, when they discovered we were volunteers, said thank you for the work we were doing. At the orphanage I was always called “teacher”, which is a sign of respect and appreciation.
What did you learn about yourself during your experience?
I realized that I can travel on my own, which is great. I also realized that you don’t have to be in a classroom to learn.Travelling and volunteering are so educational. I learned so much about Cambodia and the local issues just by being immersed in the country. I also realized I can make an impact even in a short amount of time. It was challenging for sure, but I showed myself that I have an open mind that lets me adjust to new environments and rise up to make a difference.