2011-11-25

How can volunteering in Argentina benefit your professional development?

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By William Macleod and Paris Penman Davies

In a study carried out amongst students in London during January of this year, it was found that 67% of Students found that their volunteering experience had made them more employable and had given them transferable skills required by employers.  It goes without saying that the majority of students asked were willing to put their voluntary work on their CV.   

You begin to wonder halfway through a fourteen hour flight what it is we are seeking, or what we expect to find, by travelling across the world to what dusty explorers were once able to term ‘a foreign land.’ For my own part, I came looking for an experience which would turn my life upside down. I wanted to be moved by the vulnerability, dismayed by the poverty, touched by the stoicism and awed by the vibrancy and colour of Latin American society. I wanted to land in a truly alien environment and return home with tales of adventure and mystery which were highly unique. I wanted an experience that was personal, not professional, and the majority of people who come to volunteer have this in common. Wide-eyed at the prospect of that over-stereotyped and horrendously clichéd idea of gap year travel, of forming deeply meaningful relationships with those in my care and returning with that distant look in my eye and a host of dinner party stories which begin with ‘If you could see it….If you had been there…’ and end with the quietude of studied admiration. Maybe I’d get a tattoo as well. But either way, I certainly had no intention of delighting my nearest and dearest with narratives of my excellent teamwork, my ability to meet deadlines or my superior business admin skills. I am sure you can sense that a ‘but’ is coming, but I am not going to say that the latter holds any truth. The host of platitudes which surround travel and volunteering should not diminish the very real truth that it is indeed highly rewarding and immensely personal. Those hoping for such an experience will not be disappointed. The tattoo is optional.

Yet what you will find is that this personal development, whilst highly valuable in its own right, is also likely to see you returning to the workplace as a very different individual. This has its own benefits. But in addition, the process of volunteering will expose you to circumstances which have a direct impact on professional life. This can come in all sorts of different ways, and can be either overt or implied. However, we shouldn’t be ashamed to return home having boosted our professional acumen as much as our personal. Taking home knowledge which is more appropriate to the office than the pub adds, rather than detracts, from the experience as a whole. In some cases, our personal experience will be transferable to the professional world, in others, it is directly relevant. Sandy is a twenty eight year old doctor who works Australia within the field of mental health. In Buenos Aires he works in a garden within the grounds of a psychiatric hospital. This allows him to observe first- hand the different techniques and practices employed in Latin America.  But through the personal relationships built up via his interaction with patients he says he has improved his ability to relate to people from different backgrounds and cultures which will be an important part of his work back in Australia.

Laura works as a business manager for Cancer Research UK. By working as a volunteer she is able to gain a grass roots understanding of how a charity operates and an appreciation for the way in which a social organization like VG differs from a research-focused charity. She will be able to draw on this understanding when she returns to her job in the UK. But what about the two handsome (Will would prefer strapping) young men who have compiled this blog? We, Paris and Will, are volunteering in the communications section of the charity, and have both found elements within our roles which will definitely be valuable in a professional environment. Paris: I have a job starting in Paris (yes haha) in January working for an advertising agency and having never done any volunteering outside the UK before I was really excited about the idea. I really didn’t think my role here would have any relevancy to my job in France but as we have been working on a fundraising campaign here it has in fact been very similar. If you’ll excuse the advertising jargon; here you work with no budget, rudimentary graphic design and bag loads of enthusiasm to try and promote an idea within a marketplace which is extremely cluttered. What’s more, I’ve been able to do a lot of copywriting for our promotional campaigns. In the end, I have learnt more about advertising being here than I have at any of my past internships.

When a potential employer is interviewing you or inspecting your CV, he or she is looking for signs that you are a motivated, disciplined individual that can adapt to new situations and environments.   The fact that you are willing to offer your services unpaid demonstrates motivation and therefore immediately puts you one step above others. Volunteering work develops important skills such as teamwork, communication, problem solving and task management.    Clearly, it takes more to get a job than just doing voluntary work, but there is no doubt that it gives you a leg up. Volunteering can provide specific career experience in that you can tailor your volunteer work to a particular area; Christina majors in social care back in the states and so decided to base herself in a medical centre here in Buenos Aires. Whilst Synva, from Norway, volunteering here as an assistant in an orphanage, hopes it will add to her nursing background and help her in her career switch to paediatric care. At the same time, another of our volunteers, Lauren, explained that her work teaching English in Los Pibes Community Centre in La Boca would be an important boost to her job hunt in America as she can now demonstrate the ability to work and adapt in an unfamiliar environment.

So as you can see, although many people come out here for something which is a complete contrast to professional life, you may well end up returning home better prepared for it. Volunteer work offers the opportunity to try out a new career without making a long-term commitment. Clearly, if the volunteer decides to be a teacher after the work or had always wanted to become a teacher, then this provides invaluable teaching experience which can help you when looking for a job in teaching. Will: Like Paris, I am also working in the Communications section of the charity. This is hugely beneficial for me, since I have an interest in Marketing as a potential career. After I leave Buenos Aires, I will be doing a Marketing internship in Madrid.  I have not done any charity work previous to this, so I continue to find new challenges and learn new skills, not just affiliated with marketing, which I can bring with me to Madrid and also keep with me for life. I am not saying that people should do volunteering because it can lead to a job. Of course one’s main incentive would be the personal fulfilment and development that they gain from it. 

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