A Day in the Life of a NGO Volunteer

When I first imagined working for a Cambodian NGO, I could not help but wonder if it would compare to when I worked at the Scottish Parliament. As a parliamentary intern, I managed emails, wrote motions, conducted research for reports, and a slew of other tasks. Sometimes my days consisted of sifting through emails and speaking with constituents about local issues, while other times I spent hours writing about topics of importance to my MSPs. At times I felt a bit superfluous, but other times I felt excited and gratified, doing things I wanted to spend my whole life doing.


Back when I worked in a job that required a security clearance

While I knew not to expect my Cambodian experience to reflect my Scottish one, I built up a similar level of anticipation and enthusiasm for it. As an International Relations major, learning about other countries, peoples, and political systems fascinated me. I spent years reading theories about NGOs, politics, and cross-cultural exchanges, and I never doubted my desire to work in a field that would allow me to be constantly engaged in these passions. The opportunity to do so with this volunteer abroad experience seemed like a dream come true.

For the past five weeks, my time volunteering with a local Cambodian NGO has gone relatively unmentioned. I mentioned it a few times in my previous posts, but I purposefully waited to speak more about my time here. I wanted to give myself time to adjust into the new placement and time to get used to the flow of work and overall work culture.


An excited Travelsmith, ready to begin NGO work

After five weeks, I am still learning new things about YCC (Youth Council of Cambodia) everyday. Each day is different; some are busy and some are frustratingly quiet. The previous experience of my Scottish Parliament internship has definitely come in handy, not just with giving me an opportunity to practice similar work before, but also with getting accustomed to handling well a lack of work. At times I must take initiative to ask about projects on my own and conduct my own research to keep projects alive. Sometimes, I simply accept the slow moments as a time to practice patience, and I keep myself busy with other independent tasks.

A few days ago, a new volunteer coming to join me at YCC asked what a typical day of volunteering looked like. I smiled, racking through my brains on how to answer her question. Before I came to volunteer, I devoutly searched the web for the answer to the same question. In my typical need for control and certainty, I wanted to know what I would be doing and how I would be doing it. After five weeks, I already know that no two days are alike and trying to summarize a typical day is a bit futile.

Coming into a volunteer placement at a NGO, an open mind and a boatload of patience is the most important skill to bring. However, in an attempt to provide some “wisdom” to future NGO volunteers, or simply anyone who is curious, I thought I would finally shed some light on what I do here each day.

At YCC, I am supposed to complete a variety of tasks that include but are not limited to: writing reports and proposals for grants, helping translate documents into English, and planning the various organizational events. However, I have also been asked to do things such as fix a phone that cannot make calls, teach someone how to use Google Drive, and fix disconnected internet services. I have been whisked away to random meetings with donors and attended conferences where youth groups and political officials meet to discuss important issues, both of which, I will add, were entirely in Khmer.IMG_3128


The one English thing at a day long youth event I attended

The majority of my days are spent writing proposals. Already, proposals to obtain funding from organizations like Oxfam and Comic Relief have crossed my path. I spend hours figuring out ways to best describe the projects YCC wishes to complete, composing mini essays every time I complete another report. Since I love writing, and (not to toot my own horn) am pretty good at it, I find the work both stimulating and fulfilling. Each proposal is a new challenge; how will I answer their questions this time, what different ways can I speak about the issues facing Cambodian youths? The work speaks to my interests and strengths, allowing me to demonstrate my passion for equality, human rights, and everything else that first attracted me to my International Relations degree. I research statistics on unemployment rates for Cambodian youth, I find information on government policies regarding systematic public participation in politics, and I often collaborate with my coworkers on the best ways to present these issues in the proposals. Finally, I feel like I am doing something that I enjoy, and something where I feel like I am making a difference.

However, the work is not without its frustrations. Often times while working on a proposal, the NGO director will interrupt me with new information on things to include. More than once I have been told in very broken English how to write an “Objective Statement” or what a “Problem Summary” means. Each time I do my best not to be insulted, as of course I know what each of these things means, and simply smile and nod my through the condescending comments. The language barrier often leads me asking questions about what to include in the proposals.

“You mentioned you wanted me to change the specific goals of the project. I am happy to do that, but I need you to tell me what the goals are,” I ask, doing my best to speak in a calm respectful voice. “Yes,” the director always responds. “What are the goals?” I ask more pointedly. “Yes.” And this is how almost every conversation goes.

At least twice a day, I feel frustrated. However, the frustration results from something that instantly calms me: I care about the work, I like what I am doing. All at once, everything becomes worth it; the sweaty bike ride here, the times I sit doing nothing because the proposal hasn’t been sent back to me with the directors notes to finish it, the moments I smile while I am being treated like an idiot: all completely worth it.

I get to write about issues I care about. I get to work with people that, for the most part, I like. I get to be part of changes toward something good.

Volunteering at YCC has forced me to be patient, calm, and determined. When things are quiet, I remind myself that I am working for an organization that does youth development in Cambodia, and so I do my own reading about youth development and about Cambodia. When I am irritated at the director, I remind myself that I am a volunteer paying to be here, and whenever I want, I can leave; I am not trapped in any sense. When I am writing a proposal, I remind myself that this is what I want to do and that I have given myself the incredible opportunity to be doing it.IMG_2959

No two days are alike here, but the feelings that flow through my mind each day often are. They are constant waves of frustration followed by contentedness. For any future NGO volunteers reading this, know that you will be tested, but you will also get to do what you love to do. To me, that makes everything worth it.


The Travelsmith

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