Personal Growth Through Making an Impact

Posted on the 28th September 2020

Natalie wrote to us to share her recent volunteer experience as a School Assistant in the UK. Although she returned home to New Zealand early due to COVID-19, she truly made the most of her experience and has shared with us her reflections, learnings, and trip highlights.

Thank you so much, Natalie, for writing to us and telling us more about your experience!

I decided to volunteer because I wanted to see and experience a different part of the world while connecting with new people and cultures. I felt as though taking a year off between school and university would be really beneficial for me, but I still wanted to do something productive that would make a difference in the lives of others.

I chose to volunteer in the UK because it is so close to the rest of Europe. This is somewhere I had always wanted to travel to, and because I felt as though the lack of a language barrier and similar cultural values to New Zealand would make my first big solo trip a little bit easier.

When we first arrived, we had our orientation where we got to meet all the other volunteers in our country. This was so much fun and really great for making friends who we could travel with and whose placements we could potentially visit when exploring the country! We also went through potentially tricky scenarios we could face while at our placement and how to best deal with those situations. The Lattitude staff also presented us with lots of super helpful information on travel, transportation, and the expectations our placements would have of us. Orientation was such a great way to kick off my volunteering experience.

Though no two days at my placement were the same, a typical day would start with waking the boarders up in the morning, having breakfast with them, and making sure they all left for school on time. Then I would head to the school’s music department, which is where I worked during the day. My duties there ranged from administration tasks, to organizing concerts, and getting to hear the students practice and perform their music which was definitely a highlight. After this, I would return to the boarding house to prepare afternoon tea for the boarders and welcome them back from school. After dinner, the boarders had homework time, which meant we volunteers had a bit of a break! Then I would run some games or activities for the boarders until I had to get them ready for bed. Each day had its own highlights and challenges but I thoroughly enjoyed each one.

I was lucky enough to have my own room at the boarding house, but I was volunteering with four other ‘gap students:’ Georgie from Australia, Ricky from Germany, Corban from New Zealand, and Sebastian from Ecuador. We all became so close in such a short period of time and I miss them so much! Having the other gap students with me made the whole experience so much more enjoyable as we would often go on trips together, and it was nice to have other people to talk to on the few days that I was homesick who understood exactly what I was going through. While at placement, your fellow volunteers really do become your family.

Because English is commonly spoken in the UK, there wasn’t really much of a language barrier, although some of the kids at my school definitely struggled to understand my Kiwi accent at times! I didn’t pick up on any major differences between NZ and the UK but there are definitely some small differences that are quite noticeable. The food is very rich and there is a lot of it – at my placement we would eat what I considered in NZ to be a ‘dinner meal’ for lunch, and we basically had a full English breakfast every morning which I hardly ever had in New Zealand. Some British classics that I tried while I was over there were Yorkshire puddings, bread and butter pudding, and far too many English breakfasts. They also eat their Fish and Chips with mushy peas which I thought was very strange compared to what I’m used to!

The diversity of accents in the UK is also much greater than in NZ, which can sometimes make it a bit hard to understand people in parts of the country!

People in the UK are more formal and less laid back than in New Zealand, but most are still very friendly and more than willing to help you out. In big cities like London, the locals are very busy and trying to do their own thing. I found that in the more rural areas, things are more laid back and the locals are generally friendlier and more willing to have a good chat with you.

Because of COVID-19 I came home 9 months earlier than planned. This meant I didn’t get to travel everywhere I would have liked, but I still managed to get in a bit of travel before then. My placement was very close to London, so I spent a few weekends there which was so much fun as London is so vibrant and exciting, and vastly different from any city in New Zealand. I also went to Cambridge with my placement, which was so beautiful and it was amazing to walk alongside buildings that have stood for hundreds of years, which is not something you often get in NZ. Over the midterm break I traveled to Scotland with the other gap students at my placement which was definitely a major highlight of my volunteering experience. We visited Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews, all of which were stunning and actually reminded me a lot of New Zealand!

My favorite moment was during a ‘Girls Weekend’ to London with two of the other volunteers at my placement. We had spontaneously decided to get tickets for ‘Wicked’ on the West End that night, and as we were on the tube on our way to the theater we couldn’t stop smiling and laughing – everyone else probably thought there was something very wrong with us! We were just so happy and excited, and we couldn’t believe that we were in one of the most famous cities in the world. Even though I didn’t get to spend a full year in the UK, moments like that remind me of how wonderful my three months there were.

I think the most positive impact I had while volunteering was on the boarders at my placement. Being able to make the boarding house a really positive environment for them through games and activities like baking and art was so rewarding, and I could tell how much they enjoyed being around us gap students. Over time, some of the boarders began to come to me for help when they were struggling with school or friends, or when they were feeling sad or homesick, and knowing that I was a trusted person in their lives was the best feeling.

My closest friends while volunteering were the other gap students at my placement. They were like my second family, and we still talk all the time despite our different time zones. I also got to meet lots of other Kiwis from around the country, and hearing about their different experiences in the UK has been super interesting. I also became good friends with the boarding house staff as well as the music teachers at my placement, and I still keep in touch with them five months later. Making the decision to leave the UK early due to COVID was such a tough decision but the staff at my placement were so supportive and understanding which made the situation a bit easier.

During my downtime, I enjoyed going for walks and exploring the local town center; my placement was in a really beautiful part of the country, so whenever the sun was out, I tried to get outdoors. On the weekends, myself and some of the other gap students enjoyed going to bars and clubs in a neighboring town, and occasionally we would take the train to London and explore the many things to do there. We also liked to watch movies and bake, especially when it rained (which is definitely common in the UK!)

Volunteering definitely made me a more independent, resilient, and confident person. Doing things like laundry and groceries has prepared me really well for living away from home in the future, and dealing with homesickness and the challenges of living in a foreign country have definitely given me more tenacity and taught me loads about myself and what I can persevere through. Meeting so many new people in such a short amount of time really forced me to be very outgoing, but taught me the benefits of making conversation with people in very different stages of life to me which has definitely made me a more confident individual.

Once I got back from the UK (9 months early), I actually started a new placement in New Zealand as a school assistant in Nelson which has been very different to my UK placement but still loads of fun! Because my first volunteering experience was so positive and rewarding it made me eager to start a new placement as soon as possible. Next year I am planning to study psychology at university, as volunteering with children and teenagers at my placement has made me interested in human development and behavior. I would love to study abroad at some point, as my volunteering experience has left me with a bad case of the travel bug!!

 

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