Challenges as an international volunteer

Throughout our seminars together, and furthermore throughout the majority of my degree, the limitations of international volunteer work have been discussed at length. Do students really produce any positive change when they go abroad? Are they just doing it for an adventure and some good photographs? Or to make themselves more “cultured” and beef up their resume? Are they actually achieving anything? This discussion has recently been more prevalent in the mainstream media as well. I know a few of my family members who recently watched a CBC production on this very issue. “How are you going to be different?,” they ask.

I speak for myself when I say that I have held this field course to a higher standard, and thought it to be “different”. Enormous amounts of research were put in to finding us placements to effectively utilize our skill sets. Our class worked hard in studying Indian and Tibetan culture, as well as preparing a portfolio of resources before departure. While in the airport, a number of us were within the vicinity of a large “Me to We” group on their way to Kenya, all sporting matching t-shirts with the pun “Kenya Diggit? 2015”. We reflected on our preparations and how seriously we took this endeavor. To us, there was a real difference between the work we were off to complete and the spectacle created by the (probably very well intentioned) Me to We group.

My experiences with working so far in India have been complex and challenging. The Central Tibetan Administration is the Tibetan government in exile. Within the CTA, I have been placed in the Department of Health, which provides services to over thirty thousand Tibetans in India and Nepal despite having only six doctors. They have to function as a charity under Indian law in order to sustain their initiatives. I have found them to be extremely hardworking individuals who tackle the enormously complex problems of refugee health care.

That withstanding, I am not a health care practitioner. I have limited knowledge of the functioning of the CTA, as well as of the cultural context and Tibetan language. We are currently working on a sexual health program for youths; however, concepts familiar to us in our Western sexual health education, such as “safer sex” and contraceptive use, cannot be explicitly mentioned in print because they are not culturally acceptable to discuss. Coming from such a different perspective and knowledge base, how can I truly create positive change and impact? Am I just here for the sights?

As I struggle through these thoughts, I try not to let it paralyze me. I may not have experience in health services, but I have a degree’s worth of experience in writing and critical thought. Asia and I use our researching, organizational, and problem solving skills at every opportunity. We submit our work to various colleagues for their honest input and revision. Although the long-term implications of our work and effectiveness remain to be seen, we will continue to work as hard as we can. Determination to be useful is not enough, but with continued reflection and reevaluation I am confident it can be achieved.

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