How EVS can be a life changing experience
My name is Nicola Quinn, I am 26 years old and in my final year of a B.A. in Community and Youth Work studies at Maynooth University. I will tell my story of the European Voluntary Service (EVS), how it has impacted my life and why I think young people should take the opportunity to volunteer abroad. I suppose for me it’s important to give an insight of where I came from before taking you on the journey of my EVS experience!
From the age of ten I had been involved with my local youth project and some of the most valuable learning experiences I had were through youth work. I grew up in a disadvantaged community in Dublin, where youth work was really valued and, rest assured, needed. The social issues facing the community and young people were extreme: crime, addiction, poverty, violence, unemployment and pure deprivation. Before I went on EVS, I had gone on to third level education to study Business Management…only to realise I had no interest in business management, and was at a loss what to do next.
I kept close links with my local youth project, and in 2012 I heard about this hidden gem known as EVS from the manager of the project. What motivated me to volunteer abroad? Curiosity: to try something different, a new experience, a challenge, something exciting, and I had full faith that the youth project would offer genuine support if needed.
The manager of the youth project already had a partner in Slovenia who was ready to host short-term volunteers, so I grabbed hold of the opportunity with both hands. It was a four-week project working with young people in a youth centre. I had a really positive experience and got a glimpse of other cultures and life outside Ireland, but it wasn’t enough. So when I returned I started to plan for a longer term project.
At this point my feelings about youth work changed, from being really grateful for the work of youth workers, to discovering my passion for youth work and considering myself to be good at youth work.
Our youth project formed a partnership with Macedonia for a project called ‘Trading Places’. Two Macedonian EVS volunteers would come to our youth project and two volunteers from our project would go to Macedonia. It was a ten-month project in a youth centre: perfect! I had no idea where Macedonia even was on the map, so in preparation I invested some time in learning about the country (starting with the geographical location, LOL!).
I worked in Kreaktiv Youth Centre in Kavardarci, in the south of Macedonia. The youth centre was a drop-in centre with an open door policy for all young people aged 13-25. I worked with a team of seven international volunteers, some from EVS and some from the Peace Corps. As a team we were responsible for the daily function of the youth centre, and also worked in sub groups to develop and deliver workshops and activities for the young people and local community. Working at the youth centre gave me the opportunity to develop my youth work skills such as engagement, programme planning, teamwork and facilitation.
I learned a lot about myself from my EVS experience. Actually most of my learning from EVS was about me! Some was direct learning, and some I am still learning. First of all, my experience of EVS and the work I was doing assured me that youth work was for me and made me realise why I valued youth work. Having the opportunity to work with such great young people and to see how much their youth centre meant to them, and the difference it made in their lives, was amazing! I also learned a new language, and the young people were great for helping me learn.
On a more personal level this EVS experience was an opportunity for me to explore different cultures and traditions, and in doing so it made me realise that I have my own beliefs and values, like friendship and respect. I think before I went on EVS, the ‘unknown’ aspect of other cultures or traditions would have made me judgemental of how people lived, ate and prayed in other countries. But in Macedonia I made really good friends with the other volunteers, and these were people that had different religious beliefs to me; people from the LGBT community; people who liked different music; people of different nationalities, different styles; who ate different food; and had different views of the world. Despite all the difference we had good healthy relationships: we socialised, we debated, we shared stories, we had fun, we helped each other out, we worked together and lived together--all that ‘different’ stuff didn’t matter. I think the overall discovery for me was that sometimes there is more than one truth, and if people can learn to respect that other people’s beliefs are as valid as their own, we could be much happier! Opportunities like EVS or international exchanges can be the stepping stone towards changing stereotypical attitudes.
Of course it wasn’t always fun and games. Being young and in another country can be tough, and at times I missed my family and got homesick. But now when I think of it even that in itself is positive learning: to develop coping mechanisms and overcome challenges increases young people’s independence. I think that definitely young people need to be prepared and supported when volunteering in another country.
The opportunity to volunteer abroad was a life-changing experience for me. I think that international and cultural exchange is something all young people should have the opportunity to experience. In new spaces and through forming new relationships, their minds become more open and this promotes diversity, tolerance and respect. I have made friends for life from around the world! My message to young people who are thinking about volunteering abroad would be to go for it, take on the experience, challenge yourself, and most of all: enjoy yourself!
Written by Nicola Quinn