Working As A Volunteer

Many of our students are preparing to spend this summer immersed in the hands-on experience of the student practicum.  The practicum, if you are not familiar with this aspect of the graduate program at MCEDC, is a chance to put the theories they have learned in class to work in the real world.  Students investigate and apply for participation in an existing project in a developing community that may be as far afield as India, Guatemala, or South Africa, or as close to home as urban Denver.  Not only does the student gain practical, marketable skills as an engineer, he or she gains valuable, first-hand insights into the field of international development.  At the same time, the student contributes in a concrete way to progress in a developing community.

A recent article in the Guardian UK offers some suggestions for young people volunteering in development programs, a timely topic not only for our students about to set off on their practicum adventures, but also for those who may be beginning to plan a practicum trip for next year.  The article takes the form of tips from program directors of various development organizations regarding how to get the most out of your volunteer experience.  You can read the entire article here.

One of the things I noticed in reading the article was that the experts disagreed with regard to how long a volunteer’s commitment needed to be in order to be effective.  Six months was the time frame mentioned by one expert, while other experts noted that shorter terms are appropriate.  Few of us have the ability to devote six full months to a volunteer commitment of any kind, much less one in another country.  The approach of MCEDC is in agreement with those experts quoted in the article who say that a more limited time commitment is worthwhile when it takes place within the context of an existing development program.  Most MCEDC student practicums are from six to eight weeks in length.

Another idea that stood out was the benefit of working with a local, grassroots organization wherever possible, as opposed to a giant, multinational organization.  The reasoning behind this recommendation was that local groups have a better understanding of the particular needs of the community.  This resonates with one of MCEDC’s core principles, which is that the solutions to a developing community’s challenges must be created in partnership with the local residents and never imposed from the outside.

The final theme that stood out for me in this article was that, as outsiders, the volunteers need to be prepared for the experience in which they are about to immerse themselves.  This is a multi-faceted issue involving empathy and sensitivity.  It begins with familiarizing one’s self with the local language and customs.  More than that, it requires an understanding of the area’s history, including any European colonial past that may impact the way the volunteer’s help is viewed.  Finally, as one expert pointed out, an effort must be made to ensure that “volunteer aspirations” match on-site “partner expectations” such that the experience is a positive one for everyone involved.  The breadth of an MCEDC student’s education should prepare him or her to handle these situations well.

If you are a student or former student, we’d like to hear your comments about your practicum experience, about the practicum aspect of the MCEDC program and how you think it could be changed or improved, or any other thoughts you may have.

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