Giulia, a Media and Communications student, volunteered as an English and German teacher for a non-governmental organisation called Respect for Greece in Athens, Greece for her Erasmus+ Traineeship.
How did you source your placement?
At the beginning, I applied for the European Solidarity Corps – a website suggested by the Go Abroad Team – but unfortunately I did not receive a response. Nonetheless, the Go Abroad Team gave some helpful tips on how to continue searching for placements. In the end, I found my placement online by googling ‘Volunteer work in Greece’.
What were the highlights of your experience abroad?
One highlight of my experience abroad was the day I said goodbye to my language teaching organisation. Not because I was leaving – on the contrary – but because I was surprised me with a goodbye party by my colleagues. We had a delicious Arabic barbecue and we danced traditional Greek and Arabic dances all night. In addition, meeting wonderful and brave people from all over the world (mostly the Middle East) was a privilege. We shared personal stories with each other and taught each other phrases from our respective languages. This was an important shared experience.
What was your daily routine and how did it differ from being at home?
Apart from Mondays, which I usually used to prepare my classes or write the reports for my managers, I worked every day during the working week for between four and seven hours. My work included giving English and German lessons, facilitating a weekly animation workshop and organizing activities for a local women’s shelter. I also, participated in a lot of other activities in my free time, such as volunteer meetings, psychology or child protection workshops and festivals. It was great to work and live with other volunteers because we were like a family.
The experience was different from being at home as I was always surrounded by and interacting with other people. At home, I have more time to organically think about my daily experiences so in Greece I had to actively be conscious of making time for myself to do that. Also working with vulnerable people everyday made me have to become flexible in my approach to work, something that I did not have to contend with before.
What were your top challenges while abroad?
The way in which my organisation was structured led to a lot of challenges. Upon arrival, there was no introductory workshop on how to look after refugees that have suffered from traumatic experiences. This resulted in an uncomfortable experience in which my supervisors left me and another inexperienced volunteer on our own with a group of twenty kids including a child in a wheelchair. A child with special needs cried and screamed a lot, and we didn’t know how to help or what to do and we couldn’t communicate with them because of the language barrier. I made it my duty to communicate this issue in feedback sessions, which resulted in the social workers creating much needed workshops to prepare volunteers for such potentially stress-filled scenarios.
What did you gain from your experience abroad?
There were many times when I wanted to quit the placement, but I learnt how to stay strong, how to make the best out of certain situations and to be optimistic. Also, this experience made me think about my daily problems that now seem so small compared to the things that asylum seekers experience. As a result I am trying to find a way in which I can use my privilege to make the world a better place.
In addition, working with professional social workers and psychologists has improved my understanding of theories of inclusion and integration; having in person training has allowed me to put these these theories into practice, to the extent that I have learnt how to intervene when someone is struggling with depression or the memories of traumatic experiences.
When it comes to my teaching, I know now that a good structure and organisation is key to everything. In Greece, structuring my lessons with the kids was the best decision as I couldn’t do things spontaneously like other volunteers sometimes did. Though my experience also highlighted the benefit of a spontaneous, solely student guided approach that is often present when you are working with vulnerable people who don’t have a structured life.
What are your top tips for students about to go abroad?
The first tip is to never give up. As cheesy as it sounds, you will feel so good at the end when everything is over because you achieved something you can be proud of. It’s almost impossible not to struggle when being abroad, but the hard times will pass. You will learn so much more about the world, different cultures and yourself. My second tip is: be open-minded. Try things you’ve never done before, go and meet locals and discover hidden spots in the city. Just live with an open heart and mind and try to get to know as many people from as many different cultures as you can. Don’t let stereotypes or fear stop you from doing things.