Summer, warmth and sunshine often feel far away at this time of year so we thought it would be a good time to catch up with one of our earlier guest bloggers. In June we caught up with Rhian and Banaeshia who were about to embark on a summer volunteering experience in Africa:
In this post we hear from Rhian about her life-changing experience in Africa:
What were your first impressions of Africa?
My first impressions of both Morocco and Ghana were of how crazy the drivers were! When I arrived in Morocco I was instantly hit by the beauty and culture of Marrakech. When we arrived in Ghana, however, we arrived late at night and were instantly welcomed by the intense humidity and rain. As it was the evening and dark I was only hit by the feeling of ‘I really am in Africa’ the next morning, I remember standing by the window for a long while just in awe of the little children running around outside our new volunteer home without any footwear, and the countless women passing carrying their belongings on their heads.
What was the accommodation and place like?
The Moroccan accommodation was lovely. In the heart of Marrakech’s medina, we were privileged to have running water, westernised toilets and nice beds. Even Wi-Fi and a terrace to sunbathe on after work! This traditional Moroccan home was called a ‘Riad’, shared with around 30 other volunteers. The Ghanaian accommodation was far less luxurious, no running water meant we had to rely on rain water for showers and working toilets, so if it didn’t rain, or if the rain water got dirty during storms, we just wouldn’t be able to shower. The rooms were damp and we had the odd mouse and lizard friend, but other than that it was completely fine. After seeing the ‘houses’ that the locals surrounding us were living in however, I honestly felt like I was living in a palace in comparison.
What was the support like?
In both countries the support was fabulous. In both houses we had an employed coordinator living on site, therefore, if we ever needed anything they were always there. They also welcomed us when we arrived, settled us in, explained everything to us and even took us to the local supermarket to pick up some essentials.
What was the work like?
In Morocco I mainly worked in orphanages in Marrakech and in Tamslot, an extremely poor region of Morocco about 1 hour from the city. We were based in a number of orphanages (specialising in babies, boys, girls and children with Down Syndrome) and moved from one to the other in shifts. We taught basic English (as the main language is French and Arabic) and the language barrier was so intense that we mainly just did arts and crafts and played countless amounts of games. We also took the children with Down Syndrome swimming one day which was amazing. We also conducted feeding programmes where we would all collect money and buy food for the homeless people living on the streets of the city.
In Ghana I was primarily teaching. In our first week we were based in a school; in the middle of nowhere in the centre of a massive cornfield! This school had only existed for 6 months, and so the children were virtually illiterate. The school relied solely on volunteers to run; therefore if we didn’t turn up the children would remain unschooled. This school was challenging as they hardly spoke any English and so it getting them to understand what we were teaching them was extremely hard. As they were not used to the schooling structure, the children were very strong-willed and found it difficult to concentrate and complete their work without thinking that they’d rather be doing something else. For this reason, we played mostly educational games with the children and taught them nursery rhymes. However, we did manage to teach the older children the English words for body parts. For the remainder of my time we moved to a different school (called Lisa Finlay) where the children were much more behaved and accepting of the schooling structure. Later, however we found out that this was sadly because the use of the cane was being enforced upon the children in the classrooms. Despite this unhappy form of discipline, we managed to teach quite advanced English, maths and science to our students (mostly children age 8-9). In this school we even managed to conduct a sports day for the children.
Was there anything that shocked you?
What mostly shocked me was obviously how different their lives were in comparison to ours here in the UK. I saw people without things that we Britain’s see as a right of life; things such as water, shelter and even simple items of clothing like shoes. Children in Morocco were mostly beggars which was so hard to see, especially when I thought back to my childhood of climbing trees, riding my bike and going home to a nice warm bed with a full tummy with a family that cared for me.
In Ghana, the poverty really hit me hard. I was so overwhelmed by it constantly, seeing malnourished children without clothes daily. Even more so, we were accustomed to have children in our class that were so ill (from malaria or whatever reason) that they even found it difficult to keep conscious during lessons. On Wednesdays in Ghana we’d all venture to different in-need tribes nearby and give them items such as water filters, soap, industrial sized bags of rice, biscuits and juice for the children, worming tablets and anything that we volunteers had brought over with us to give (such things as toys, clothes etc). Here we would get a clear insight to what everyday life was like for many. The tribes would welcomed us so warmly and offer so many things (such as whiskey shots!) that you would never imagine that they were so deprived. It shocked me how generous these people were when in reality they didn’t have enough things for themselves, let alone for strangers. One woman even offered us her home for the night so she could show me how she manages her crop!
What was your most memorable/ favourite moment?
My most memorable moment by far was meeting the group of children that I had bought health insurance for. While in Lisa Finlay school I got quite friendly with the headmaster, and he informed me that hardly any of the children had health insurance, and so when they get ill, they simply can’t afford to get it treated; this is how so many people die in Africa due to malaria.
Meeting them was an incredible experience as they were the most poor children of the school, but I couldn’t help notice how completely happy they were, which made me very emotional.
What do you feel that you have taken away from this experience?
Apart from the obvious things like lovely photos and great stories to tell, I definitely feel like I’ve taken something from this experienced that has changed me. I feel so privileged these days, for things like a loving family and a comfy home. I feel incredibly privileged for all the experiences I’ve had so far in my life, where in Ghana, the people there are unlikely to even venture to the neighbouring town in their life time, let alone cross continents as I have. After this experience, I now realise how insignificant most of my previous daily problems were; things such as not being able to go out as I didn’t have enough money etc. I have my health, and that’s more than enough for me to be grateful for.
I also now have a very colourful CV! Working in Africa enriched me with many skills that the UK could not (for example in the UK I never would have found the strength to nurse an unconscious child with malaria in the middle of a classroom).
Would you ever do something like this again?
I would definitely do something like this again… in fact I’m already planning to! Working in a country gives you far more than just simply going on holiday there ever could. Not just that, the good you see yourself doing every day makes you feel amazing. Even now I’m still overwhelmed by everything that’s happened to me this year. I’ve seen so much, done so much, and I honestly can’t wait to go do more of the same thing.
Last year, one of our students completed a volunteering placement with NewLink Wales. We have been delighted to learn that she has won the “ Working With Diverse Communities Award“ which was received at a ceremony earlier last month
Alison Walker, module leader for Work, Volunteering and Applied Psychology, heard from NewLink Wales, who described the award as being important as it “highlights the achievements that we have made through our positive work conducted with diverse communities. We wanted to acknowledge the impact that volunteers have made with being part of this work.
The winner of this award has used her initiative and skill set to strengthen her confidence in facilitating a female only youth dance group with our Czech 1-2 group, working closely with our Axis Young Person CEP Worker. The feedback has been wonderful and we want to thank her for all her achievements.”
We are very proud Akhil’s achievement, and knowing how well she had done, we had to ask her about her experience with NewLink:
After getting the news of being offered a volunteering placement at NewLink Wales, I felt very motivated but at the same time scared to jump into a totally new experience. At the beginning, I worked in several roles in order to have an overall view of the opportunities at NewLink. Eventually, I decided to volunteer for the NEW STEPS and the AXIS teams.
The NewSteps project (run with Recovery Cymru) is about building a community for adults in recovery of drug and/or alcohol problems. I mainly supported the art and craft group, which consisted in interacting with adults in a positive manner and giving them creative things to do and meaningful ways to spend their time. The group engaged in activities such as gardening in the allotments and DIY craft, including the mosaic project.
My role in this placement was to welcome new members, to make them feel at ease, and to explain the current projects that were running (like making a personal mosaic board) as well as to support them in general through listening to them and giving bits of advice.
As I am a crafty person this placement appealed to me straight away, but at the beginning I found it hard to initiate a conversation as most of clients were very shy and seemed barely approachable. Being aware of some of their problems made it even tougher as I was nervous to say anything that might trigger a negative reaction. I did gradually learn how to approach people and learned how to handle and support vulnerable people in an empathetic way.
The other project I volunteered with was the Axis project, which is about supporting vulnerable ethnic minority youth groups, such as Roma and Czech communities. Having no experience in working with young people before this role seemed quite appealing, as well as challenging, and therefore I opted for the placement.
The first sessions consisted of familiarizing myself with the youth club and the people going to it. This was a very challenging hurdle to overcome due to what I found to be rude and strange behaviours. I did feel very uncomfortable and so thoughts of quitting crossed my mind. However, I realised my fear of the unfamiliar environment and behaviours and decided to approach this with more confidence and patience. Progressively, I familiarized myself with the people there and helped them to understand that my role was to support them, and so I gradually built a certain status with them. My role in the placement was to offer support with any issues they were facing and to occupy them with fun and challenging activities, like helping them with English and English grammar.
My main objective of the placement was to create a dance group for girls only and to lead it on my own. In the youth club, girls are a minority and dominated by boys. The girls group allowed them to take part and to express themselves through dancing and gave us the opportunity to talk about things important to them, like about sexual health and drugs.
Throughout both placements, I have improved very useful personal skills (e.g responsibility, leadership, authority) but had to also help make sense of the professional context to the groups I worked with. Both placements were challenging, but provided me with insight and made me realize that I am capable of working in these sectors, which I would now consider in the future.
I am extremely overwhelmed for winning the award and would like to thank all the NewLink Wales staff for all the support and the very pleasant experience.
In this guest post we hear from another one of our students who spent their summer experiencing the life of a volunteer abroad. Phillip studied towards his BSc with us and is now completing his MSc in Health Psychology with us. During this time he has been an active ambassador for the university and has supported several student led projects; this summer however he decided to spread his wings a bit further and spent several weeks in India on a volunteering project:
At the beginning of the last academic year I knew I had to do something productive with my summer. As well as making it useful, I wanted it to be fun, exciting and not surprisingly, meaningful. So my mind landed on working abroad, which was something I hadn’t done before but had been thinking about before becoming a postgraduate. However, I didn’t know where what I wanted to go, I just knew that’s what I should do.
After looking into this, I finally landed on a work placement in India for 2 months through an organisation called AIESEC – the world’s largest student run organisation with a mantra of promoting global leadership and fostering cross cultural relations between students. I was to be hosted by students of the Indian School of Mines in the City of Dhanbad – one of India’s more prestigious engineering colleges in the ‘Coal Mining Capital city’.
The focus of my internship was promoting social entrepreneurship; I did not realise the full impact and importance of this idea in India until I was there; business solutions to India’s vast social problems is a widely appreciated approach. The company I worked with: Whiz Mantra Educational Solutions LTD– works with the communities surrounding Dhanbad through improving educational conditions; working with both parents and children in the villages.
As an intern my job was to assist the company director wherever possible on a day to day basis, which meant I often got to go to the sites of work and visit children at their schools or with their families. However the central part of my role was to lead a team for an event which would promote entrepreneurship among university students at the Indian School of Mines. The purpose of the event was to show students the benefits and scope for starting a business as opposed to just joining a company.
Among many duties this largely involved inviting guests and speakers, making arrangements for their stay in the city, and perhaps more dauntingly, attending meetings with large scale Indian companies with the hope of obtaining sponsorship for our event. Having this public relations and business experience was invaluable, as was being in another culture where everything from the business methods down to cultural etiquette forced me to face challenges head on. There were great personal rewards for doing this. After two months of working six days a week, the event was a complete success (but not without challenges of course!).
Reflecting on my two months in India, I can’t stress enough the significance of working abroad. It’s an opportunity to challenge yourself, gain valuable employability experience and greater perspective in a short amount of time. Not to mention it’s a lot of fun, especially if you don’t mind being away from comfortable surroundings for some time! But this isn’t something to be concerned about. I found myself to be surrounded by so many interesting things, sites and, of course, people so often that I was completely at ease.
For more information about AIESEC and what you can do, visit their website – http://www.aiesec.co.uk/. You can go anywhere the world and do pretty much anything. All you need to do is want to do it, be open, and you’ll be more than satisfied!
The following video is in Hindi, but provides a wonderful overview of the work that Phillip was involved with (as well as a cameo or two by Phillip):
Each year some of our students are lucky enough to complete volunteer projects over the summer vacation which prove to be a life enhancing experience. This summer one of our Level 6 students, Erin, was lucky enough to volunteer in Sri Lanka working with a psychologist and patients experiencing mental illness. In this guest blog post Erin provides a glimpse into her summer:
My Experience of volunteering with SLV
This summer I had the great opportunity of visiting Sri Lanka and volunteering with SLV, a student and graduate volunteering scheme offering a vast array of different placements.
It’s not a secret to know that it is now not solely a degree which will throw you into the frontline of your ideal job after graduation, but is the ever growing experience you have under your belt. Just under a year ago I decided I wanted to do something about this, expand my CV, so when it does come down to applying for my dream job and walking into many interview rooms, I know I will have a lot to discuss.
SLV are partnered with Sammuttana, the Kings Cross College resource centre for trauma, displacement and mental health. The placements range from 4-12 weeks, I chose to do the 5 week placement (which actually is no longer available). This placement I found to be an appropriate length of time as I was apprehensive of spending such a long period away from home, with it being so far. However my advice now, and if I have the opportunity to visit again, would be for 8-10 weeks. With volunteering for such a well put together and prestigious organisation you feel right at home so not once did I feel homesick. As well as this toward my last week I had grown good bonds with individuals and those in the classes I was working with, and now wish I had stayed longer to see more progression than I already did.
As part of the placement there was an induction week so all would not seem so overwhelming, and this gave time to get to grips with the Monday to Friday timetable, as well as an incredible trip to the jungle where I really got to relax and meet new people. This is all included in the price along with white water rafting and cliff jumping. I found in my first week I met some great friends, all of whom I spent my weekends travelling with.
My Monday to Friday timetable consisted of half a day per week running therapeutic activities at psychiatric hospitals, half a day at a residential centre providing care for individuals with mental health disorders, English classes for youths aged 18-25, children’s projects at a number of different orphanages and primary schools, and running therapeutic activities such as art, music and dance at understaffed centres for people with special needs. I enjoyed the teaching just as much as I did working in the psychiatric units. Working and experiencing what it is like in a country that is much less well off than ours was incredibly hard to take in and deal with and I think something you can only get to grips with by being out there. Along with the price you pay for being part of SLV you will get the opportunity to work alongside a clinical psychologist, this was by far one of my best days out there but indeed the hardest, it is incredibly different to treatments we would use in the UK and what we learn in lectures. Therapies there are few and treatments are mainly pharmaceutical based. It is hard looking as the way in which we would like to treat individuals and care for those suffering with mental health is much different there, but I will always remember that in my own future work. One problem which is faced there, just as much as it is in the UK, is stigma.
A few warnings I would give to anyone who is considering a summer with SLV is to be prepared for the heat. It is like heat I have never felt before. Of course appropriate clothing is required so no escaping the sunbeams by popping on a small skirt or bikini. As well as this, is the public transport which I grew love, there was no such thing as personal space and no such thing as no more room for a paying customer. Be prepared for many sweaty armpits and occasionally having to enjoy the trip on the steps into the bus. I found this, along with the beautiful Sri Lankan food some of the many things that come hand in hand with being thrown in to the roots of the culture, and a culture I truly miss. Anyone asking where you are heading or approaching to speak to you are genuinely interested, they want to help as well as know that you think their country is “lass~n~” (Beautiful in Sinhalese).
It is no lie that the placement itself, along with flights and money to spend travelling on the weekends is pushes a tight budget, so my advice would be to save for a good year. I would 100% say the price is worth your experience, with breakfast and dinner included and being cooked by your wonderful home stay parents. In addition to your price you will have the opportunity to attend several workshops, my favourite by far being the meditation and creative therapy workshop. In this workshop we had the opportunity to learn many ways of meditation from a monk and techniques within dance therapy. Other workshops include ‘psychology within a Sri Lankan context’ and ‘psychological healing aspects of issues pertaining to the tsunami, civil conflict and post war reconciliation’.
Returning back to England and going into my final year at university I can honestly say that it is the best thing I have ever done and am starting this year with more confidence and knowledge about what I hope to pursue next year.
If you wish to find out more about SLV take a look at their website: http://www.slvolunteers.com/
This summer two of our students who have just completed Level 5, Banaeshia Tooley and Rhian Jones, are volunteering abroad in order to develop their skills and expand their experiences. Both will be travelling to Ghana to work with Original Volunteers as teachers together, while Rhian will also be spending some time in Morocco working in orphanages. In this blog post we hear from Rhian and Banaeshia as they look forward to their summer.
What made you decide to spend your summer volunteering?
Banaeshia: Every summer I have always said to myself that I would volunteer, however although I have travelled throughout my life and have lived in very diverse areas of the world (United Arab Emirates and Russia), I never wanted my first experience of volunteering outside of the UK to be solely by myself. After living with my housemate Rhian this year, I soon found out that she has the same values and ambitions in life as I do, so when talking briefly about volunteering, we decided to research into it and ended up booking a volunteering opportunity for just over four weeks in Ghana together.
Rhian: For me experience is the most important thing, the more you can get of it, from anything, the better. That’s why I chose to spend my whole summer volunteering in Africa this year. I also want to do as much travelling as I can, and if you can do some good while doing it, then great! It’s such a worthwhile thing to do, benefitting myself in regards to experience and also future employability, and then also obviously benefitting the people I will be working for, too.
What made you choose this volunteering opportunity?
Banaeshia: The reason why we chose this particular opportunity is because I personally have heard great things about the company that we booked with “Original Volunteers,” this is due to the fact that my close friend had already been with them to Ghana last year for three months and expressed how much of a fantastic time he had, whilst changing other’s lives a huge amount via building schools, teaching and working in hospitals. We both chose Ghana in particular as where we will be staying is very rural, we considered other places such as Thailand, but found that where we would be working were much commercialised areas. I personally feel that if I want to experience the country itself and truly help people in need, I certainly will want to be living as a local.
Rhian: The volunteering organisation that I decided to work with ‘Original Volunteers’ send individuals out (mostly British) to the most severely deprived areas of the world, to work in institutes that run more or less solely due to volunteers. For example, I’ll be working in a school in Ghana as one of the teachers, where the children will rely on me and others like myself completely to provide them an education. And then whilst in Morocco I’ll be in orphanages where the only love/care these children experience are from volunteers. Can you imagine sending your children to a school where the teachers don’t really know what they’re doing as such and come and go every few weeks? As scary as it does seem, I choose these two projects mainly due to this high level of involvements and responsibility. I thought that if I was going to volunteer, I wanted to do it at a very ‘hands on’ level where I could actually possibly make a big difference, even if it’s only a difference to one child. In relation also, another reason that I chose Original Volunteers is that I actually knew a girl that had volunteered with them previously, therefore I knew they were legit and would look after me and not just leave me stranded after I had paid and flown all the way out to a third world country! I found Original Volunteers to be the cheapest company to volunteer/travel with, too, making it an extra bonus for me as a student!
What will you be doing during the project?
Banaeshia: I am extremely passionate about helping others through volunteer work, in the UK I have taken up other opportunities of volunteering, for example in Cardiff I have worked in a primary school helping children gain self-esteem and academic confidence, and back home in Worcestershire I have helped the elderly with dementia whilst working in a day centre. I have chosen to work with children in particular in Ghana; this will include teaching English within local primary schools and working in an orphanage. Whilst we are there, we are also able to help with other aspects of the project, such as building work – which I will obviously considerer and if I have time on my weekends off, I will join in with this type of work.
Rhian: As stated, in Ghana I’ll mainly be teaching English in a school situated in a rural community a few hours from Accra (the capital city). As I’ll be living in a community, I’ll be interacting in many other projects too, such as conservation (working with crop and so on) and also building (previous volunteers with this company are actually responsible for building the school I’ll be working in and various other buildings also). In Morocco, I’ll be working in many different orphanages- disabled children’s orphanage, baby orphanage, and boys / girls orphanage. I’ll also be working to help the homeless community of Marrakesh (which is where I’ll be staying). However, I will be treated with some time off to explore too! In Ghana we have a choice going on a weekend long safari- which I will be! Or visiting the coast (Cape Coast) and staying in the hotels in that area to experience the night life aspect of Ghana!
Where will you be staying?
Banaeshia: As stated previously, Rhian and I will be living and working in rural areas of Ghana. The project itself is based in Kwahu South District of Ghana, and we will be working in and around Mpraeso.
Rhian: In Morocco, I’ll be living in the Sahara Desert for a few days with the locals, eating their food and experiencing their way of life, we also have the choice to visit the town near Marrakesh where scenes from one Indian Jones film was based. In both countries I’ll be living in very basic volunteer houses (no hut, thank goodness!), though in Ghana I do actually have to rely on a ‘bucket shower’ to wash. Something I’m not looking forward for!
How has studying for the Psychology BSc at Cardiff Met helped you in preparation for this opportunity?
Banaeshia: Studying Psychology at Cardiff Met has prepared me for this particular opportunity due to giving me the skills and knowledge I will need in order to work with people. I have decided from studying this particular degree that I would like to strive to be an Educational Psychologist, discovering this ambition over these two years of study encouraged me to apply to work with children in Ghana and has given me the confidence in order to believe I can help.
Rhian: As I’m a psychology student (that’s very keen to go on to further specialize) this volunteering aspect further appealed to me. Being in such deprived areas will I’m sure open my eyes and shock me in some ways. I’ve already been warned by the organization about the different ways of living the people in Ghana and Morocco follow, also about the morals the locals hold and their different views of what is acceptable and what is not. I was told that I must be expected to see women treated more like 2nd class citizens, and realise that the people have different ways of punishing children than we do here in the UK. This frightens me slightly as I know I won’t feel comfortable being around such type of behaviour, though I know I must bite my tongue seeing as it’s their country that I’m in and if that’s their way then I have to accept it (this relates to the tradition of the Arabic culture in Morocco to cover most of your body, regardless of the scorching heat. Never have I packed so many cardigans to go to such a warm country in my life!). This is where studying Psychology here at Cardiff Met has really prepared me for the trip as I feel that it has accustomed me to the ways of the people in these different cultures and their different ways of thinking, particularly in regards to male and female roles and how this will influence the behaviour within these different societies. It has taught me to be aware of that the economical differences between the African and British families may mean that the children I will be working with will have been brought up in very different ways, under different circumstances to the children that I have worked with previously through volunteering schemes in Cardiff. The malnutrition that the children could quite possibly experience in these deprived areas may cause that the children I’ll be teaching in Ghana for example to be slightly more challenging in ways than children from back home. There are many things different in Africa compared to our life back in Cardiff, whether the social aspect of life or developmental aspect of each individual, and due to studying Psychology here at Cardiff Met I feel that I am quite familiar with many of these aspects and have a bit more of an understanding regarding different types of people and their ways of life.
What are you most looking forward to?
Banaeshia: I am most looking forward to getting out of my comfort zone, which I know sounds very odd, however I am a type of person to enjoy other cultures and get ‘stuck in’ to their way of life. I am excited to meet all of the children I will be working with and to make new friends, including locals, the Original Volunteers team and other volunteers who have applied also. I am also extremely excited to try local foods and experience the social side to Ghana, including seeing different sites out there and going on a Safari. I guess I am just excited about it all, there isn’t one thing I can pick out. It’s going to be the best experience and the fact I have my best friend there to enjoy it with me is a wonderful feeling; I just can’t wait to get there now!
Rhian: In conclusion, I am most looking forward to really living like an African. Whether in Morocco while travelling by camel to simply get me to the next orphanage, or in Ghana while playing football barefooted with a crowd of smiley local children. I don’t want to be even close to WI-FI for the whole time I’m there; I just want to know what it is like to live in their world. I’m hoping to really make bonds with the children, and also the other British volunteers that I’ll be meeting out there, too. I’m really looking forward to do something different, something other than normal trip to Ibiza with your fellow student friends! Something that I’ll be able to return from with a ton of amazing stories to tell. And also, the closer I can get to riding an elephant the better. I have my fingers crossed!
We wish Rhian and Banaeshia a wonderful time over the summer and look forward to hearing about their experiences in a few months!
On Friday 21st March we held our first undergraduate conference. This was the culmination of a lot of discussion, planning and organisation over the past year, where a simple idea about how we could help prepare students ready for the next year grew to a full day event with visiting speakers, sessions specific for each year group, a volunteering fair and all staff from the department.
The day started for students just before 10 o’clock. Fears about attendance were very short-lived when the queue to enter the main hall was seen stretching back into the main reception at iZone. About 300 students came in for the start of the day, which commenced with a brief talk by Dan Heggs, the Programme Director, who introduced the conference and how it was meant to support students into the next stages of their academic career,s and to help us all think about skills and employability. Jenny Mercer then gave the morning keynote talk, entitled “The Benefits and Functions of Volunteering … and doing this as a student.” Jenny discussed on-going research being conducted by staff at Cardiff Met that focuses on reasons for volunteering. Many students now complete volunteer and work placements in order to develop experience and to have something on their CVs for future employers. However, a key point, Jenny argued, was that altruism remained an important reason for wanting to undertake a placement, stating that psychology students often want to help others.
After some questions from the audience, the three year groups separated. The first years had sessions about possible volunteering placements for the next academic year and how to apply. The second years found out more about final year projects and option modules for their final year, and the third years had sessions about careers, graduation and on-going support from Cardiff Met and the alumni office.
At lunch there was a volunteering fair. We had stands from 14 organisations that have worked with us in offering placements to students. Additionally, the Careers Development Service, GoWales and the Student’s Union all attended and talked to students about how they could support students and then continue to support graduates. The departmental Psychology Society was also relaunched by students, including a competition to win tickets to attend the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference.
At the end of the day Dan Heggs thanked all students and staff for coming along and supporting the day, and especially thanked Alison Walker and Shamima Kuddas Hussein for all the hard-work they had put into preparing the event and making it a success.
For the closing session Pete Reddy from Aston University gave the keynote talk, called “Employability, work placements and your brilliant career.” Pete discussed employability and skills, and emphasised the importance of placements in developing skills and long-term work prospects. Pete’s talk left us all with much to think about but also with a sense of the possibilities and opportunities for our students as they prepare for their careers, whatever those might be.
Feedback from the first Volunteering and Placement Conference has been really positive. We have now started thinking about we will do to make next year’s event even bigger and better.
Today we are pleased to introduce a guest post from one of our former students. Keely Brookes graduated from our BSc Programme in 2009 and then completed our MSc in Health Psychology in 2010. Since then Keely spent several months volunteering in Haiti, a life-changing experience she recounts for us here. It is wonderful to see our students going on to use the skills they developed at Cardiff Met in such diverse ways:
After feeling in a rut, I wanted a change, a different experience where I could help others and still use my psychology degree. So, I decided on the Caribbean, more specifically, Haiti. Purely by chance I came across a job posting for a research and teaching internship at Enstiti Travay Sosyal ak Syans Sosyal or ETS (Institute of Social Work and Social Science). So, after much debate I booked a three month trip to Haiti. But…this wasn’t without apprehension. After reading the security reports advising against travel to the country, it would be unfair to say I wasn’t a little nervous about the decision I had just made. But, after lots of support, I boarded the plane in Heathrow at the beginning of February this year.
Flying into Haiti was a bit of a blur…I was so nervous I don’t think I took much in. I waited in the Caribbean heat for my lift from the airport in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. It was from my soon to be Creole teacher and social work master’s student at ETS, who later became a very good friend who showed and taught me so much about the ‘real’ Haiti. We drove the hour journey to the school in Thomassin, near Petion-Ville (slightly south of the capital). The journey itself was interesting – so many things to see and ask about, some intriguing, like, why are there so many painted and colourful trucks full of people (which I soon learnt were taptaps, and they soon became my main mode of transport) and what are they selling on the markets, and, some heart wrenching, like seeing all the children begging on the streets, seeing tents where people still live after the earthquake and seeing piles of rubble that were once homes, schools, shops or churches.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as we turned off the main road and travelled down a muddy, washed away road but this certainly wasn’t it – behind locked gates there was a beautiful (and very big house), which in part formed a part of the university campus grounds (with a classroom and a school office) and in part formed the housing for ETS staff and Creole language students in dormitory style rooms. When I arrived I meet some of the house staff, had a tour (which included an explanation of how to have a bucket shower!) and was greeted with a traditional Haitian meal of rice and beans.
I met with the director and founder of the school the day after I arrived to discuss my role in more detail. Initially, I was asked to teach the university students that attended ETS, an English class, a research methods class and a social science class. This was daunting as I had never taught before. So, I talked it over with the new people I had met and they gave me so many ideas for my first classes that it began to feel manageable. I had soon written the syllabi, lesson plans and assignments. So, a few days after I arrived, I made my way to SOPUDEP,a school in Petion-Ville that taught primary and secondary school aged children, where the university also rented a classroom. This wasn’t quite in the same condition as our classroom in Thomassin, it was a rundown building, with only holes in the bricks for windows, old and broken chairs, a chalk board and no working bathroom. It was also incredibly hot and loud, however the school was a lot more convenient and cheaper to access. The only way to really describe how I felt at this point is culture shock.
So, on that fateful Saturday after being squashed in a taptap, the first class was advanced English – I was literally sweating, nervous and no idea what was about to happen. I had 10 students staring at me and waiting for something – so as planned we kicked off with an icebreaker and did some vocabulary and grammar activities so I could assess what level they were at. Overall it went well and English classes turned out to be a great way for me to learn about Haiti. During the break I opened some crackers and shared them to the people around me. As they made 4 crackers literally go around 8 people, this was the first time I saw how generous Haitian people are; a Haitian proverb is “Moun ki pa manje pouk o l’ pa janm grangou” which means “those who don’t eat alone are never hungry”. The main problem I soon realised I would have is I couldn’t speak Creole (Haiti’s national language). I found using a translator difficult and they found me having an English accent challenging – it was certainly a new experience for everyone and it was something I knew I would quickly need to adapt to.
I soon began to love teaching, became very good friends with my translator and the students were amazing. In total I ended up teaching 11 different classes, ranging from health across the lifespan, to health psychology, to referencing, with anything from ten to fifty students in each class, and in any style from workshops to lectures. The second biggest part of my role within the university was research. Two big commissioned projects had been conducted but the results needed analysing and writing into strategic briefs for publishing – which was my job. The first was on tourism and the second on the economic and social cost of the cholera epidemic that occurred after the 2010 earthquake. Finally, I also helped students with research projects and what struck me the most is that a lot of students were doing projects because they wanted to and because they cared about the topic, not because it was a university requirement directly. One project which I really loved being a part of was one which explored why teenage pregnancy has increased since the earthquake. Using interviews the student went and interviewed teenage parents to find the underlying reasons – reading it for the first time I had tears in my eyes as the reality of the earthquake past the physical damage really stuck. The student has now been accepted to present her study at a conference later this year – I couldn’t be prouder. If you talk to any student about why they are in university in Haiti the answer is simple – they want to help, they want to give something to their community, to help those who are suffering – whether it’s by doing mental health interventions, counselling, teaching or economy to help inform policy – anything to just help those who need it, it’s truly selfless.
For a long time the language barrier was hard for me. I took Creole classes and practiced every day, but for a long time I felt like I was making no progress. I realised how it feels to be dependent on somebody. When I arrived I didn’t know anything – how to get to the shops, how to buy food from the markets, how to use the transport – for everything I relied on somebody else, primarily my amazing and patient Creole instructor and friend. But, things got easier and day by day I became more independent, my language skills improved and I learnt how to navigate by myself – it was certainly hard but the more confident I was in my language skills the easier I found doing simple things by myself, like using the taptap and buying groceries at the market. Practicing with people in our local community, especially the local children was the best thing for me.
I spent a lot of time at friend’s families houses, enjoying local food, beer and dancing – for me this is what made my time there so special – seeing the ‘real Haiti’. Social life was a huge part of my time there – from going on student trips to the beach, learning Kompa (Haiti’s national dance), going to Karnival, watching RAM (a famous voudou band), student talent shows, drinking local beer or rhum with friends and having tours of different areas or communities by students who wanted you to see and understand Haiti and their lives.
It wasn’t all easy though, I saw a lot of different homes and living conditions and I learnt the importance of conserving what resources you have – whether it’s water, food, electricity or even your notepad. An example and one day I will never forget is visiting one of the biggest IDP (internally displaced peoples) camps in Haiti where people still live after the earthquake. As we drove in I had so many questions but I couldn’t speak without crying so I sat there just taking it in, thinking about how after so much money was invested into the country after the 2010 earthquake people are still forced to live in these conditions, with no clean water, at risk of cholera, malnutrition and violence. It’s truly tragic.
A big stereotype of Haiti is that it is unsafe to go on local transport, to buy food on the street or to walk around on your own and it’s not all easy and attention is very much on you as a foreigner but I lived a local life, using local transport, eating local food and socialising with local people. I felt safe and loved every minute – and ended up staying seven months instead of the planned three.
I travelled around an amazing and beautiful country, ate so much fresh fruit, vegetables and fish, tried every local dish imaginable, learnt a new language, and met some amazing people – locals, students, children and other volunteers. Despite, heartache, devastation and loss, the people I encountered and who became friends for life in Haiti are the most loving, kind and generous people. The sense of family and community is something that will always stay with me and something which I admire. For me professionally, this volunteer experience has provided more than I could have imagined. I have learnt how to teach, how to facilitate and lead groups and how to supervise. I have learnt how to run workshops and how to deliver a lecture. I learnt about disaster and international psychology and research and the role of the profession within a different culture. Personally, I learnt to appreciate and be grateful for everything you have and often take for granted and that I can adapt to new and challenging situations. I learnt about a different way of life, culture and country – from food, music and art to marriage, children, family and religion. Overall it was an amazing once in a lifetime experience.