By: Justine Dol, PhD in Health
With great opportunities, come great responsibilities: Three key responsibilities for students volunteering internationally. Lessons learned from experience as a QES Scholar in Tanzania.
As a Canadian student working in a foreign country during the summer of 2017, it was essential for me to consider how my actions influence both the individuals I had the opportunity to work with as well as the community and place in which I was working. For my Queen Elizabeth Scholar (QES) placement, I worked at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Science (MUHAS) located in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Based on this experience and my previous international experiences, I was reminded of several responsibilities that come along with these experiences that I would encourage other students to be mindful of before embarking on international travel. These include the need for co-operation and consultation with locals, being aware of personal motives and limitations, and enabling the exchange of information and capacity development.
The first key responsibility that I would argue that we as student volunteers have is co-operation and consultation with the local people in the area that we are working in. Communication is essential to develop the partnership mentality, where you can work together with your supervisors and peers at your placement, rather than approaching the placement with an (un)conscious bias of a ‘me versus them’ perception. Despite some of the best intentions, if local people or local organizations are not consulted, it can result in an “othering” of the people you are trying to help. It is important to work with local individuals to know the best way to help and contribute, rather than making them feel inferior or by compromising ongoing work. This will allow growth in both the host communities and the volunteers. Unfortunately, far too often this responsibility is ignored.
For my placement at MUHAS, I worked closely with my supervisor, Dr. Thecla Kohi, to assist with ongoing projects as was needed, rather than trying to complete my own agenda. When I did have the opportunity to lead my own research project, I made sure to involve my supervisor at every step and utilize her expertise in conducting research in Tanzania. Her expertise with postnatal mothers and nurse midwives advanced my project and contributed to the ongoing research in the School of Nursing at MUHAS.
The second key responsibility of being a student volunteer is being aware of our personal motives and limitations. I had to ask myself: am I going to put the experience on my CV? For personal development and growth? Because I have an autistic desire to build capacity in others? To participate in research in an international setting? I think for me, it was a little bit of all the above. But maybe for other students, it is for some other reason. But by acknowledging where your desire to volunteer internationally comes from, it allows you to approach the trip in an honest manner. Additionally, it is important that as a volunteer, we acknowledge our limitations. For instance, why is it okay if I go build a house in a developing country when I have no house building experience in Canada and would not want to live in a house I built myself? I think that a large responsibility as a student volunteer is to acknowledge why we want to volunteer in the first place, and then acknowledging our limitations to assist the people we want to help. Rather than going into another country pretending to know all the answers because I come from a Canada, I think it is important to work alongside locals who are knowledgeable and capable of doing the work that is necessary but our assistance could lighten their load.
For instance, during my placement at MUHAS I was involved in data analysis for several qualitative projects where the data had been collected but my supervisor was over burden with other responsibilities and unable to take the lead on the analysis. As someone who has had previous experience with qualitative research and analysis, I was in the position to assist with the qualitative analysis. I did not attempt to get involved in areas where I do not have the necessary skills, such as working in a clinical setting, as I do not have the necessary qualifications. Instead, I contributed the skills I possess in a meaningful way to meet a need identified by my placement.
This leads into the third key responsibility of student volunteering internationally, which is the goal of exchanging information and building capacity. This responsibility is two-fold. First, an equal exchange of information between volunteers and locals is important, as it reflects partnership building, mentioned in the first responsibility. The goal of volunteering should be to share knowledge and empower locals to increase sustainability and capacity. I believe knowledge transfer is important in terms of volunteering because this reciprocity will build local capacity through building the tools they need to develop their own successes. It is also important that the knowledge exchange works both ways, as volunteers cannot assist in providing knowledge without knowing, from the individuals or community itself, what their needs are. The only way that proper exchange of knowledge will occur is through listening to the partners for their true needs, rather than using top down ideas to assist. Secondly, student volunteers are in a unique position to pass on knowledge of a country that other people might not know about. By having student volunteers share their experiences once they return to their home country, it could help to correct the stereotypes that people might hold.
For myself, after spending over three months in Tanzania, I have unique knowledge of the country and can share first-hand knowledge of the culture with people at home in Canada. I believe this is important as student volunteers because we should take what we learnt and continue to spread knowledge of our time away when we return home. The QES program is set up in such a way that public engagement is a requirement. This is key to ensure that exchange of information occurs and continued building capacity in Canada and internationally.
Overall, being a student volunteer in a country different than your own can offer some amazing opportunities, both personally and for the people you will be working with. However, before leaving, it is important to ask yourself some questions. Is what I am going to be doing there needed? Why am I going? How can I share about my experiences once I get home? I believe that the QES program at Dalhousie University has the right ideas, as it involves pre-training before volunteers arrive, co-operation between partners and universities as well as evaluation and public engagement afterwards. If we understand our responsibilities, it will result in the best experience not only for the student volunteer but also for our partners.