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Cathy relives volunteering with VSO Ireland

The way VSO works has changed since Cork teacher Cathy O'Connor went on placement - we no longer send teachers into classrooms to teach with volunteer placements being more focused on skills exchange with local teachers. One thing's for sure though - Cathy's volunteer placement ignited a love for West Africa and sparked the start of her career in international development. 

Why did you decide to volunteer with VSO Ireland?

I decided in the final year of University that I wanted to do something different before settling down into a career. My aunt had worked in development all her life and so I always wanted to engage in work of that nature. I had seen an advertisement for VSO on the TV and it looked like the perfect fit for me at that time. However, when I was placed with VSO, the entry requirements were slightly different and because I had done a PhD in Chemistry, with tutoring experience, I was accepted into a Chemistry Teacher role in a secondary school in Zambia.

What surprised you most about your placement?

Everything was so new that the whole experience was a pleasant surprise. I think the best way to approach it is as a learning opportunity and not have set expectations on how it is going to be.

What was your favourite thing about your placement?

There are so many things it is hard to choose just one. However, I made great friends, it nurtured my desire for travel, it exposed me to whole other ways of life and opened my eyes to the possibility of a different career path.

What impact did your work have overseas?

It’s difficult to know the full impact as I haven’t returned since but during my time there I felt that I delivered on my role as the school Chemistry Teacher. I also got involved in extra curricular activities, such as forming a HIV-AIDS club where we used drama as a tool to deliver messages on the subject and travelled around the local area. We also got involved in some musical projects.

Did you learn any new skills? If so, what were they?

I learnt great patience when adapting to a different pace of life. I became more resilient surviving in an isolated area with none of the conveniences I was used to. The whole experience made me more confident.

How was your relationship with your colleagues on placement?

I lived and worked with one other colleague and we got on amazingly. There were never any issues. There was another school in the village we worked in and we were also great friends with the volunteers who worked there.

How would additional funds benefit the programme you worked on?

I was working as a Chemistry Teacher and that laboratory facilities were terrible. It was a shame not to be able to do real experiments as they are such a core part of fully understanding science. Extra funds to buy necessary equipment would have been amazing.

How did you feel about being back home?

I felt glad to see friends and family. I had not been home for two years and this was back in 2004 so there were no smart phones and the village I lived in didn’t have electricity most of the time. We also didn’t have a phone in our house so communication had been minimal. However, I also felt a little confused being back and at a loss to be able to really explain what I had been through and experienced. In the end you have to accept that it was a unique experience that only you and those that shared it can really appreciate. It is a strange feeling but I suppose that is why volunteers form such strong friendships with each other.

What have you been up to since returning home? 

When I arrived home I got a job in the Science sector as that is what I had graduated in. However after six months I knew I needed to get back to Africa and I applied for a job with an NGO and a few months later I was in South Sudan. I remained in the East Africa region for another eight years. I still work in the sector now based in London with an international NGO where I head up the Asia Team. It was my time with VSO that opened up this whole new sector to me.

What advice would you give to volunteers about to go overseas?

Trust your instincts. If volunteering is something you have been thinking of for a while – do it.

Interested in following in Cathy's footsteps and volunteering overseas?

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