For the thousands of students who volunteer or intend to volunteer overseas, Western alum Susan E. Gibson has a word of advice: prepare to learn before you expect to serve.
Gibson, BA’83, should know. She has spent almost four decades working and volunteering for non-governmental organizations in 70 countries.
“I’ve loved it, every minute of it,” she said. “The lows may be lower (than at home) but the highs are far higher.”
Gibson has experienced the joys of overseas work: helping mobilize microloan projects for Bangladeshi women and mentoring two young Roma women into becoming community leaders in North Macedonia, for example.
And she has experienced its eye-opening moments, too: rats as big as cats in Haiti; giardia in Thailand; an ill-planned solo excursion in search of a restaurant through nighttime Beirut.
Now back in North America, she is sharing her insights – the pitfalls and rewards – in a why-to-/how-to-volunteer book she wrote to guide others who may be considering short- or long-term international opportunities.
Published by Barlow Books, How to be an Amazing Volunteer Overseas: Stories from the Field, Rules of the Road, is a companion to Gibson’s website amazingvolunteer.com, which has dozens of helpful tools and videos for would-be volunteers. Proceeds from book sales support education programs in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya and a First Nations community in Canada.Gibson outlines how her first volunteer experience, in Haiti, was a poor fit – doing busy-work with an organization whose values she didn’t share. She later transferred to an agency that valued community connection and offered her a chance to listen and learn.
The book offers big-picture guidance, such as examining your motivation and leaving your ego at home; along with tips, such as getting dental work done before you leave, and how to keep mosquitoes at bay at night.
Making an impact
Gibson, raised in Toronto, had no idea when she attended Western where her path would lead.
She took first-year courses in economics, business, computer science and French.
Only when her French professor suggested she attend Trois-Pistoles – Western’s immersive French-language school in Quebec – did she decide to major in the language.
“I recommend Trois-Pistoles to people to this day. It changed my life.”
After graduating, she worked as a bank teller, until that thirst for a different cultural context made her turn to volunteering in global development.
In 1992, she went to Bangladesh where she got her training in microfinance at Grameen Bank, the Bank for the Poor, from professor Muhammad Yunus, considered the father of microloans and microcredit. The program is designed for small entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank credit. (Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.)
The experience transformed her. For the next nine years, Gibson worked as a consultant providing technical assistance and conducting workshops in team building, communications and microfinance principles for NGOs, United Nations agencies and donor governments.
All too often, she said, well-meaning, short-term volunteers try to help, rather than listen to or work with local communities. The result: a revolving door of different people teaching the same English nursery rhymes to the same groups of children without any cohesive curriculum plan, or groups of volunteers whose expectations and demands for creature comforts unwittingly stretch the capacity of the local community.
Instead, she said, volunteers should frame such trips as cultural exchanges: opportunities to learn the language and culture, listen to the people, and offer help only in consultation with the community.
“When you’re a guest in somebody’s country, be respectful and ready to learn. You’re not going to make the change;you’re going to be the catalyst to change.”
Gibson likens the experience, in a quite Canadian way, to the difference between paddling a canoe and operating a speedboat.
“A motorboat leaves a huge wake and the operators are often oblivious to the impact they are creating behind them. When you’re in a canoe, you don’t disrupt people. You can’t go too fast and if you see you’re making a mistake, you have time to back-paddle and go another direction.”
Gibson has served on the board of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the International Rescue Committee (IRC-UK),and remains involved in refugee issues.
In her travels, she has found a world rife with heartbreaking inequities. She also found people whose ambitions – to write their name, to get a loan for a home-based sewing business, to find a home outside a refugee camp – can set their lives on a whole new course.
She has seen the difference that working together can make in Bangladesh, where nutrition, sanitation and education have taken giant leaps in the past three decades.
Her heart is also in east Africa, which feels as much like home to her as anywhere in the world.
But North America, she says, remains fertile ground for any volunteer. “People are always looking somewhere else, but maybe there’s an interesting opportunity right around the block.”