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“It was a very positive interchange about how we lived in our countries.”

UBELONG

Lyndsey Mortenson is a student at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She is majoring in community and public health, and has a strong interest in women’s issues and HIV/AIDS. Prior to her UBELONG experience she had travelled to Mexico and Sweden. Over her summer she volunteered for eight weeks in the “Working with vulnerable children” Volunteer Abroad in Phnom Penh. We recently had the opportunity to interview this bright and dynamic young woman.

What motivated you to seek a volunteer opportunity in Phnom Penh?
I thought it would be a great opportunity to experience a fascinating country in the developing world.  I had heard about the relatively recent Khmer Rouge genocide, and also just had a general curiosity about what seemed to be a completely different and exotic place. When one of my professors told me about UBELONG I thought joining the program would be a great opportunity.

What was most frustrating or challenging to you during your volunteering placement?
The language barrier. For example, I went to an orphanage one day and it was easy to communicate with the children. I could show affection, play with them and make gestures. However, with the local staff and older children it was harder.

In terms of getting over it, after two weeks I had a system of communicating with the Cambodians that worked. I learned a little bit of Khmer and we became used to each others’ gestures and body language. It became much easier and was actually very fun. Plus, the Cambodians are so welcoming and friendly that I never felt awkward or disrespected. They made it easy for me.

From what you observed during your experience, what were the three most important characteristics of a successful international volunteer?
A positive attitude. It’s so important because you are in a very different place that can seem very strange at times. Even if things don’t exactly seem right you need to stay positive and realize that that is part of the experience.

You also need to be respectful. You need to understand that the Cambodians have their own way of life that is different from yours but still completely OK. You can’t judge and you need to adapt to them. You’re in their country. For example, how women dress in Cambodia is much more conservative than what we’re used to in the United States. So you need to always respect that, as minor as it seems.

Finally, being flexible. Everything is so different. People think differently and just have a different outlook on life in general. You need to accept that and go with it.

What kind of impact did you have on the community?
I was able to experience a different culture and they were as well. Together we realized that no matter how different we may be we are also very similar. They asked lots of questions about me and I did the same about them. It was a very positive interchange about how we lived in our respective countries.

I also brought valuable information. I taught classes on dental hygiene, dengue, malaria and diseases in general. Some of the children had never had this sort of knowledge presented to them and it made a difference in their lives. When I left, for example, all the children wore shoes and had their own cups to drink out of so they wouldn’t spread germs. They also were much better at using soap. Before I came that wasn’t the case. I helped them make positive steps.

How did the people in your host community perceive the role of international volunteers like you?
The Cambodian people are extremely friendly and curious. Overall I felt welcomed and very well received. However, there were also times when I felt viewed as a source of money. It happened mostly with strangers out of the project who didn’t know me, for example in the markets or streets. It made me feel a little uncomfortable because I didn’t want to give money, I was already there as a volunteer.  But I accepted it as part of the experience and the reality is that most people there are so poor that even as normal Westerners we are many, many times wealthier than them.

What did you learn about yourself during your experience?
I learned that I’m very patient, which I’m very happy about. Everything from the project work to adapting to normal life required patience because of how different everything is. I was able to slow down, think things through and adapt. I also learned that I like to help people even more than I thought. I enjoyed making a difference at my project and felt very proud to do so. Even the tough days when I felt nothing was accomplished were rewarding to me. And, finally, I learned to be independent. I travelled alone to a completely different country and adapted. It was an adventure and a challenge, but I showed myself that I can do it.

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Related post:
Meet Josh DeBartolo, a young professional from New York, who volunteered with UBELONG in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on the Microfinance and Income Generation project.

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