Right now I am in the first half of my EVS. Six months are over and another six are waiting for me. What is it about for me? First of all I have to warn you: this is just a very subjective overview based on my experience that is in the process of running. I can change my opinion after finishing my EVS and other projects can be (and for sure are) different. That is why I am not purposely mentioning any specific names. This text should be about difficulties that it is not so easy to speak about or to google them.
New culture means facing new ways of a communication. Anyway, before leaving their home country candidates usually get basic a info-pack about the hosting country, but nothing can prepare you enough for what you will face. A different feeling of time, a different way of communication, a different way of joking and finally - your new social role. As a foreigner you have a special status in the community. First weeks you can be treated like an attraction, does not matter whether if in a village or in a big city. Many things can be weird for you.
Tip: Speak with your mentor. Or speak with anybody you trust. To speak out your feelings can be enough for solving problems, as giving names to difficulties is the first big step to overcome them.
EXPECTATIONS AND REALITY
You can never be prepared enough for what you will experience and whom will you meet. Before starting my EVS I was familiar with the program Youth in Action as my Sending Organization also hosts EVS volunteers and I have been a local volunteer there for more than 4 years. I participated in youth exchanges too so terminology and frame of program are more or less clear for me.
To any country you are coming to you are bringing prejudices with you whether if you want it or not. It is OK, it is normal. The important thing is how you are able to deal with them in the place of your volunteering.
Tip: Before your arrival to the project try to contact as many people involved in the project as possible. Previous volunteers, actual volunteers, the coordinator of the project, the mentor.
TO BE A YES-MAN
To be a volunteer means you have to be prepared to take any chance that will come. Lots of people will be interested in your person, they will as you many questions. Usually people like idea of volunteering and they appreciate your initiative. And you are exotic for them as you are a foreigner/stranger. It happens that they invite you for a drink, a party, a journey, shopping, a walk, etc. When you build up relationships, local people often invite you to their house or flat, they would like to introduce you to their family, to cook with you, to present you beauties of their country. On the other hand the first phase of your project is also about becoming familiar with every day life of your hosting organization. And here you can find that your tasks and responsibilities really different what was in your activity agreement. In the most of cases the first reaction is plenty of questions creating in your head: Do I understand wrongly the project? Should I wait for improvement? Should I complain? Am I the only one person for whom this is a problem? If yes, is problem inside me? Then many of doubts are coming. During my EVS I really started to doubt about myself. Although I used to live abroad as I participated in different student exchanges and worked abroad during summers. I considered myself as open-minded and tolerant. BUT! Step by step details which were annoying me more and more started to appear in my EVS project. Do I have too critical expectations or is there misunderstanding about my project activities or is all the my project just a fake? I do not believe in extremes, but cliché: the truth is somewhere in the middle – it is really true.
Tip: Define your personal limits and keep them. From time to time redefine them. This can be right time to become assertive. As Woody Allen wrote: If you are paranoid it does not mean that you are not right.
KICKING YOUR OWN ASS
There were many situations when I wanted to kick myself in the own ass. Un/fortunately this is not anatomically possible. One example: As I work in media center, I am using computers every day. Sometimes I also bring my laptop. And my colleagues work with desktop PCs. One day, when I finished my tasks, I was packing my notebook and randomly I plugged out not my cable, but the cable of my colleague who was at the same moment presenting a product to his really important client. I was pretty sure he was gonna kill me! Of course this is a hyperbolic saying, but in the “real” working world this could be just unacceptable. As volunteering is not a paid job, your responsibilities are different. And as you are not an employee, for example you do not need to wear uniform at your workplace, but to wear a smile will make it easier for you. But do not forget to wear on smile – at least from time to time.
Tip: Allow yourself to make mistakes. EVS is not a job, there is space for you to try new things and if you are not good at it, try something else. This is your time!
TO BE A DECORATION
If you do not know what you would like to do, then you have to do what others want you to do. For a lot of participants EVS is a way how to find what they would like to do, to try something new, to have a break between secondary school and university or between bachelor's degree and master's degree. Someone can apply with a motivation to improve his/her English skills, another one would like to have a rest, to have a fun and travel a lot. Yes, you will, but this is not the only thing about it. In my humble opinion, which I strongly believe in, volunteering means to be involved in the local community as much as possible. It means to learn the language of your hosting country and to interact with local people. Some organizations apply for accreditation to host EVS volunteers because hosting costs could help them to run their NGO. And they can be able to create amazing descriptions of the projects and volunteer's tasks which would never come true. Then the volunteers have nothing to do, they are just hanging around the hosting organization with a feeling of killing time.
Tip: To be a bohemian is a sweet but also energy-consuming way of living. To be treated like” fifth wheel on the carriage” (Slovakian saying) can make you feel like ignored, unneeded and fruitless. Read other tips and choose one or more solution/s from them.
Within my volunteering I became a more self-confident hitch-hiker and meanwhile I tried a couchsurfing for the first time in my life. A lot of people would say, that this is dangerous, but I have only had great experiences and of course I am really careful about taking a risk. I never hitch-hike or do couchsurfing alone. If my first impression is not good, I do not get in to the car or house/flat. You are never the only volunteer in an unfamiliar environment. During On-Arrival-Training there is a chance to build up network of all EVS volunteers in all the country. Really effective network is established and volunteers often travel to visit each other and they also plan activities together.
Tip: Do not forget that not only to be hosted is a pleasure, but also to host somebody is the pleasure as well. Risk with thinking and trust your karma during hitch-hiking and couch-surfing.
TO BE A SLAVE
You can see – the hyperbole again. This is an opposite extreme to the “to be a decoration” situation. And once again thanks to the volunteer's attitude or because of the attitude of a hosting organization. I have been an EVS volunteer for six months till now and during this time I have met with lots of stories about weird projects and weird volunteers. It can be gossip, but another Slovakian saying: “there is always a seed of the truth in every gossip.” There is a special sort of volunteers who are workaholics. S/he loves to work hard, always asks for more tasks and activities and gives in his/her job all the heart and the other organs as well. S/he is ignoring parties and traveling around the host country . Paradoxically this description maybe sound like a dream of every hosting organization. But! These persons can have really big troubles with establishing good relationships with other people involved in project as their understanding of volunteering is quite different.
In the most of cases some hosting organizations from Eastern Europe are “famous” for treating volunteers like slaves because they do not understand the idea of volunteering and their participants usually become cheap labour. On the other hand and what is not discussed as often – hosting organizations from Western Europe can treat volunteers (especially from VISA needed countries) in a way that is totally against the idea of volunteering. Separate articles could be written About concrete examples . If you would like some concrete cases, try to google.
Tip: As an EVS volunteer you have got rights. If they are abused, fight for them. Communicate, complain. If it does not work, make a scandal, make a scene. The social networks combined with blogs can be very effective.
FIRST & LAST CHANCE: PERSONAL PROJECT
Do almost everything suck at your project? Do you think about quitting it? Wait, wait, wait! There is still one thing you can do. The personal project within EVS is giving volunteers a chance to create, develop and practice their ideas in any field. In the most of cases volunteer would never have a courage to play some music instrument, to organize some cultural event, some championships some, some journey, some little festival, be a trainer for artistic or sport lessons or any other course in his/her home country. This is an opportunity for you to fill your time. Bring your ideas and go for it. Your hosting organization should support you at least through their space and contacts and equipment.
REMEMBER (WITHOUT CONCLUSION)
European Voluntary Service is a !system! of non-formal education through volunteering established by European Union. Like every system in general, it is not perfect at all. People are able to find “ the holes” in any system and they are pretty skilled at it. The using of these “holes” within EVS works for both sides – for volunteers as well as for hosting organizations. But there are always tools how to improve it.
By participating in EVS you will not change the world at all. By participating in EVS you will move minds of people in the community you will be involved in. But for sure, at least you can change yourself.