Why I Advise Gap Year Students to Use the Learning Service Approach

Marion Taylor is the founder of Taylor The Gap, a gap year consultancy for students. Here she talks about what she has learned through her own experiences in traveling and volunteering abroad.


Like in many of the personal experiences shared in Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, I too entered Peace Corps altruistically hoping to “make a difference.” My rural program was entitled “animation” which in French means inspire, motivate, empower. As I came to learn very quickly, I learned much more from the local community members who came to be my family, than I was ever able to teach them. One thing I loved about Learning Service is that it points out the importance of working alongside local community members in ongoing sustainable community projects, which was exactly what I learned during my time with the Peace Corps.

I remember the first few months in my village in rural Senegal in the southern region of the Casamance. I lived in a Muslim district, and being 22, white, unmarried, and female, it took me an entire year to gain the men’s trust. At the onset, I instead mostly worked and bonded with the women, to create a collective garden (which was their request).



The women community members already had individual vegetable gardens behind their huts and clearly did not need any foreigner instructing them on the “how-tos” of gardening 101. I, however was fresh and very enthusiastic from a 10-week in-country training, and was set on measuring out 2 foot by 10 foot square-edged plots with even rows in which to plant American seeds. Seeds which the local people had never seen before, nor had any interest in eating or selling in their local markets. In hindsight, it was comical to see me measuring out perfectly rectangular plots with exactly seeded rows, while the women dug up big circular plots and threw the seeds willy nilly.


Frustrated at my inability to converse in Diola (the local dialect), or even to translate from my solid French to Diola, I decided in the end to dig plots using both the local method and my way, to compare the two. The local way won out by far, of course. The women’s plots were just as successful, if not more so than mine. They had little use for eggplant, carrots, peas, turnips, radishes, and the other variety of inappropriate American seeds straight from the Peace Corps office.

 In hindsight, it was comical to see me measuring out perfectly rectangular plots with exactly seeded rows

Another project I was involved in was an anti-malaria campaign for children under 5, which was supported by Unicef. Each week the children would receive a pill at the clinic during the rainy season, which would prevent them from getting malaria during that time. However, soon after the completion of the campaign, I realized that it had really done more harm than good. Overall the program lowered the natural resistance to malaria that all the Senegalese develop and build up over their lifetime. Periodically handing out a pill and then withdrawing it can actually make them more vulnerable. I had not thought it through in my haste to “help” prevent the young children from getting sick.


Time and again I had the same experiences. My placement was long term, which was critical for learning the language necessary to live among the community in their homes. During that time it dawned on me that my job was to train and mentor local people in whatever the project was, so that they could take over and continue with it after my departure. I became acutely aware of not creating a dependency on me or my connections to NGOs or grant money. I worked with that goal in mind over the course of my third and final year, so that local people believed in themselves and had the capacity and systems in place to solve problems on their own.

Upon my arrival in Senegal, the only real “skill” I offered was the ability to speak French, which could be translated into a local dialect until I became fluent myself. The open mind, flexibility, deep listening skills, and cultural sensitivity – the less tangible “attitudes” described in the Learning Service book – were absolutely critical to learning about and understanding the cultural and religious values of the Senegalese. From that cultural exchange, I developed lifelong friendships and have returned on three different occasions with my husband and the two eldest of my four children.

While in Peace Corps, I became disillusioned by what I saw in the field of international development and abandoned the idea of joining the foreign service as a career. Instead, I eventually obtained my Master’s in Social Work and worked in the many areas of need within the US itself – such as domestic violence, AIDS, women and family health and empowerment issues.

The open mind, flexibility, deep listening skills, and cultural sensitivity – the less tangible “attitudes” described in the Learning Service book – were absolutely critical.

Interestingly enough, I have come back full circle to this field of international service after working in social work for over 35 years. The work I do today is about advising young adults to plan gap year experiences that are ethical and learning-focused. I myself flanked my college years with time spent learning French at the University of Grenoble and then my three years with the Peace Corps. In working with students and families, I have become increasingly more uncomfortable with, and thus leaning away from, gap programs that use the model of the volunteer as customer and hosting village as beneficiary.  I now actively warn clients against short-term placements that promise “change” for the locals with slick marketing and voluntourism. I also do not encourage volunteer programs that work with children for a short amount of time, or in orphanages, in animal sanctuaries, or medical placements for the unqualified.

After reading the Learning Service book, I now feel more confident framing the realistic outcomes of short term placements – it is more about exposure and learning about issues, what the authors call “learning service.” The Learning Service book focuses on the how-to of students’ learning about themselves before launching into a volunteer service program. I have also incorporated a five unit curriculum for my clients to raise awareness about themselves, to explore their own assumptions, and to raise ethical concerns regarding volunteering, prior to their gap experience. I’m so glad to have the Learning Service book as a resource; it is a guide that every gap advisor should read.


Marion Taylor is based in Boulder, Colorado and works as a gap year advisor with students of all ages and nationalities to plan out a gap experience, whether it be for a semester or year. She is married and the mother of four children ranging in ages from 21-30. Marion founded Taylor The Gap because it combined all her passions – women’s issues, international service, social work, young adults, education, language immersion, and empowerment. She is also involved with the launch and expansion of a women’s empowerment curriculum called Street Business School in Uganda and the greater Africa continent. The main image shows Marion with a basket-weaving cooperative in Gisenye, Rwanda.

7 Things Medical Volunteers Need to Know

This is a guest post by experienced nurse and serial volunteer Emily Scott, with some important advice about volunteering overseas in the medical field.

When I started volunteering abroad as a nurse, I used to tell every medical professional I met that they should participate a medical mission. “Go for it!” I’d urge them enthusiastically. “You can make a difference, and it will completely change your life.”

I had personally experienced the damage that unskilled volunteers were causing in developing countries, but I figured the world couldn’t get enough skilled volunteers. Here’s the thing: I was wrong.

A decade later, after countless experiences both at home and abroad, I’ve completely changed my tune. I know that even skilled volunteers can inadvertently cause real harm. Almost daily, a coworker approaches me about going on a medical mission – and now my response is far more complicated. I warn even the most experienced medical professionals that there’s A LOT they need to know before they set foot on a plane. Here are a few guidelines for medical professionals volunteering abroad:


1. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home.

I put this rule first because it’s the one I see broken most often. Consciously or not, medical volunteers feel that when we step into a hospital in a developing country, the rules are somehow different. Because resources are scarce and staff may be limited, we find ourselves doing things that are outside our licensed scope of practice. We don’t worry much about it because no patient in rural Uganda is going to sue us, nor will a manager appear to fire us – after all, we’re volunteers!

For example: As a nursing student, I helped deliver a baby at a clinic in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. But when I completed my clinical rotation in obstetrics in the US, I was only allowed to observe deliveries. So why did a change in continents make me feel that I was qualified to deliver a baby? Because the assumption that American healthcare providers are inherently better than those in developing countries is deeply ingrained in our culture. And because the same belief (that white foreigners somehow automatically do things better) has often been inculcated in local staff, they’ll often step aside to let us complete any procedure.

When I delivered that baby in Kenya, there was a local nurse available who was certainly far more experienced than I. But she offered to let me step in, and I did so because I wanted the experience. I cringe looking back on that day, because I know I crossed an ethical line. It’s not OK to treat African patients differently than we’d treat American patients, just because we can get away with it. Developing countries aren’t places to practice procedures we don’t see often or aren’t licensed to do at home.


When a patient needs to be stitched up, defer to the local clinician unless you’re licensed and experienced at suturing. If you don’t deliver babies professionally, then get the local birth attendant when a woman shows up in labor. If you’re a doctor who doesn’t know much about tropical diseases, don’t just take your best stab at treating malaria – ask the local physician! The trouble with practicing outside your expertise is that you don’t know what you don’t know – meaning, you may not realize when you’re in over your head, and you might inadvertently cause your patient harm.

Yes, there are exceptions to this rule in cases of life-threatening emergencies. But I have found those situations to be extremely few and far between. Before you step outside your scope of practice, ask yourself honestly if you are the best option available.


2. Do your research first.

All medical missions are not created equal. Some will utilize your skills to genuinely help the local community, while others will leave you feeling frustrated and ineffective. Ask questions of any organization you’re considering volunteering with before you commit. For example:

– Will there be translators? If not, how are you planning to communicate with your patients? After exasperating experiences on programs that didn’t provide translation services, this one is a deal breaker for me.

– Are you legally allowed to practice there? Again, just because it’s a developing country doesn’t mean we throw out the rulebook. I’ve heard of cases in which a gaggle of American nursing students are allowed to treat patients under the license of a single local physician, which strikes me as an incredible risk to that doctor (aside from being questionably legal).

– Where will you get your medications and supplies? I rushed to Nepal after the 2015 earthquake with a disaster response team, only to find that the organizers hadn’t brought the provisions we needed to treat patients. We spent our first day on the ground raiding a local hospital for medications. While there may be scenarios in which buying supplies in-country makes sense and supports the local economy, draining limited resources immediately after a disaster isn’t one of them.

– Can you speak to a previous volunteer? It always helps to get a sense of their experience and whether this program would be a good fit for you.


3. Listen before you act.

On my first medical missions, I used to barge into clinics in developing countries with a plan to “fix” everything. Spoiler alert: That doesn’t work.

There’s probably a reason that local clinicians do things the way they do. And the issues that you want to address may not be the problems that locals really want your help with. Even seemingly damaging local practices may have some relevance, and abruptly changing them can cause unforeseen consequences.

For example, HIV-positive mothers in the US are advised to exclusively feed their babies formula to reduce the risk of transmission. But in many developing countries, the high cost of formula and lack of clean water with which to mix it makes formula feeding dangerous for newborns. So even HIV-positive mothers are urged to breastfeed exclusively in these settings. Remember to proceed with caution even when you think you know what’s best.

Nowadays, I spend the first couple of days (at least) in any new setting just shadowing the local nurses, learning how they work, establishing a friendship, and understanding what they hope to gain from my presence.


4. Think carefully about social media.

HIPAA (patient privacy law in the US) may not be law in many developing countries, but privacy still matters. I’ve watched enthusiastic volunteers wander through hospitals with their cameras, snapping photos of women in labor or children on death’s door. And I constantly see volunteers on social media exposing the HIV status of their patients.


But if I showed up to work in the US and started posting photos of my patients on Instagram, you can bet that I wouldn’t have a job to return to the next day.

I know, we all want to share photos with friends and family and keep memories of our experiences for ourselves. Just do it thoughtfully. I aim for photos of buildings or objects rather than patients, and I frame my shots so that no faces are revealed. Before you share that photo, ask yourself: Would I want a picture taken of myself in the same situation?

Social media is also an opportunity to contradict stereotypes about the countries where you volunteer. Your photos and captions may be the only context that your followers have for learning about these places. Use that power wisely! When I volunteered in refugee health clinics in Northern Uganda, I posted photos and stories about all the amazing local clinicians and translators who worked there (with their permission, of course!). I’d rather share the positive and hopeful aspects of my experience than the same tired old tropes about poverty and disease. I also try to give credit to local staff rather than making myself the hero of the story.


5. Don’t mix religion and medicine.

Here’s where I think the term “medical mission” gets sticky. I use it because it’s the most widely understood term for medical professionals volunteering abroad, but I think the religious connotations it implies are problematic.

I was recently invited on a medical mission and checked out the organization’s website, only to find that they were not only tallying the number of patients treated and surgeries completed, but also the “professions of faith” they had produced. Now, there’s no problem with being motivated by your faith to use your skills to help those less fortunate. But to make spreading your personal faith the intention of your program is a problem.

Obviously, a parent will “convert” to the religion of a visitor who offers to perform an operation to save the life of their child. We all need to be careful not to exploit the power dynamic between caregiver and patient. Again – we don’t use health checkups as an opportunity to proselytize to our American patients, so we shouldn’t feel free to do it in developing countries, either.

Also keep in mind that mixing religion with healthcare may compromise your ability to effectively provide care in communities where your religion is in the minority. It may even put you and your colleagues in danger in some places.


6. Make sure your work is sustainable.

Are you just throwing a band-aid over a mortal wound, or actually addressing the source of the bleeding?

The first medical mission I ever participated in was a three-day free clinic offered by European volunteers in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. We handed out antibiotics, pulled teeth, and performed health checks on hundreds of people. Even though all I did was sterilize equipment since I wasn’t a medical professional yet, I felt energized and inspired – in fact, those three days are what made me want to be a nurse.

But what happened after we left? Did the people we diagnosed with high blood pressure get follow-up care? Did the kids whose teeth we pulled suddenly have access to better nutrition, clean water, and oral care? Did we leave our patients in the capable hands of local healthcare providers, or did we encourage them to delay checkups and treatment until the next time a group of foreigners arrives?


The vast majority of medical missions I’ve encountered function just like that first one: A few days or weeks of clinics thrown together in a public building, after which the volunteers head home and leave the community exactly as it was before they arrived. Though this might feel good to everyone involved in the moment, these programs don’t address the underlying issues causing the lack of access to healthcare. In fact, they may disempower local care providers and create a dependence on foreign intervention.

Though it may not be as exciting, training local nurses and doctors has a much greater long-term impact than caring for patients ourselves. I spent a month mentoring local nurses at refugee health centers in Northern Uganda, and I have no doubt that I made more difference there than we did at that first clinic in Kenya. Long after I’m back at home in America, the fantastic Ugandan nurses I worked with will still be caring for their own communities and implementing new strategies that we developed together.

In my opinion, the goal of any good medical mission program should be to work itself out of a job. Rather than relying on endless teams of foreign volunteers, we should be striving towards a future in which the community we’ve set out to help stands on its own two feet.


7. Learn from local clinicians!

Local healthcare providers are an invaluable resource. Regardless of how much education and experience you have, they’ve probably forgotten more than you’ll ever know about how to work in their particular context. They’re the experts on treating diseases common to their area, working effectively with their ministry of health, providing care with limited resources, and the cultural aspects of care in their community. While we rely on a bevy of tests to identify an illness, health providers in places without those resources may have such keen assessment skills that they can diagnose an illness without running a single test.

Many skilled volunteers arrive for medical missions with the one-way mindset that they will impart knowledge and locals will receive it; they’re missing out on half the experience. I have learned more from working with nurses in developing countries than I can even begin to quantify. I am a more patient, empathetic, and resourceful nurse thanks to their example. My hope is that I have touched their lives anywhere near as much as they have affected mine.


Looking back on ten years of volunteering abroad as a nurse, the one thing I know for sure is that I’m still learning. I always will be. Although medical training makes for useful volunteers, it’s not enough by itself. We must combine our skills with humility, openness to growth, and commitment to true partnership with local caregivers. I hope to help people avoid the mistakes I made early on, so that we can truly change the world (and ourselves) for the better.


Emily Scott is a Registered Nurse with a background in Peace Studies. She has extensive experience volunteering abroad, including treating Ebola patients during the West African outbreak, training skilled birth attendants in Haiti, and mentoring local nurses at refugee health centers in Northern Uganda. Emily blogs about ethical travel and volunteering at Two Dusty Travelers. She lives in Seattle with her husband and their rescue dog. The main image shows Emily with some nurses that she trained with in Sierra Leone.

“No, Sorry” – What We Say to Foreign Volunteers

This is a guest post from Sally Hetherington, about the journey her organisation took with international volunteering and how she made herself redundant.


I was 23. It was my first time in Cambodia. I thought, “why not visit an orphanage?”

I was disappointed. The children were out attending public school. All I saw was an empty playground and a mandatory donation form.

I went back to Australia, determined to get back to Cambodia and have a second shot.

The next year, I returned. I volunteered at a residential centre for former street children. I amassed several Facebook albums of photos, all featuring me with cute kids I didn’t know. I taught them the ‘hoedown throwdown’ from the Hannah Montana movie. They loved it. I didn’t do much else.

I went back to Australia, determined to get back to Cambodia and have a third shot.

The next year, I returned. This time, I was on a career break. I was going to call Siem Reap my home for the next 15 months.


I didn’t end up staying 15 months. I stayed 63 months.

It turned out I had been falsely sold the message of the importance of voluntourism. In my role as a volunteer coordinator, I was managing short-term foreign volunteers at a school for disadvantaged children. Initially, I thought I was doing an incredibly important job. The future of Cambodia was in my hands. However, as time went by, I started to question my work and impact of it. The ethics of it. The consequences of it.

I witnessed local staff who became complacent and disempowered after having foreign volunteers, mostly with no teaching experience, taking over their jobs. I sat by as children developed attachment issues due to the revolving door of volunteers. I organised activities for a group of rich philanthropists to come and play with the children for an afternoon, in the hope we could source funds to keep the organisation running for the next few months.


I wasn’t solving a problem. I was creating a problem.

I had a decision to make. I could stay with the organisation and try to make changes from within, or I could go back to Australia with my tail between my legs. I chose neither.

For me, failure wasn’t an option. And if I had chosen either of those options above, I would have failed. The organisation wasn’t willing to change; they were so dependent on the funds from volunteers to keep their operations going that they had reduced the minimum volunteering time period from one month to one week. To this day, they continue to have a revolving door of voluntourists coming through, working on their farm, teaching children and painting classrooms. In other words, doing tasks that the local Cambodians are more than capable of doing. And if I had chosen the second option? Well if I had chosen that, I would have left the country with a negative footprint, worse than when I had originally moved there.



It turned out there was a third option.

I had recently been introduced to a nightly English school run by Cambodian volunteers at a pagoda. This handful of volunteers opened their school for two hours an evening, teaching English and Buddhist morality for 50 cents to $1 a month. They also had foreign volunteers joining them, for anywhere between two days to a couple of weeks.  The fact that this school had been founded by Cambodians really spoke to me. They were in charge of developing their community and their people. They had the drive; they just needed the resources.

Collaborating with this volunteer team, we agreed that I would join them to develop the school into a registered, reputable NGO. I gave them two conditions, though. We had to stop the foreign volunteer program and I had to eventually make myself redundant, leaving the organisation to be entirely run and driven by the local team. I had realised that for organisations to be sustainable, they needed to be run by local staff. And for local staff to run organisations, they needed to be empowered.


We ended the foreign volunteer program at Human and Hope Association in two parts.

The first step was to stop English teaching volunteers, which we did straight away. After we did that, we only accepted six foreign volunteers. The first was a yoga teacher, who with a translator, taught the students about how to utilise yoga to relax. Although she was a lovely lady, I can guarantee that her lessons didn’t change our student’s lives for the better. The students were shy, and given the culture, the female students didn’t feel comfortable participating in various poses.

The next was a friend of mine who had been working at a rural hospital for two years, capacity building the team. She ran a general first aid workshop for our staff, and this was beneficial. However, later that year we secured the funds to have first aid training run by locals, which is always our preference.

The third was a friend of mine who is a HR professional. She gave our managers one-on-one career advice and commented to me that the team definitely knew what they were doing, so they didn’t actually require career advice.

The fourth was my housemate, a trained TESL instructor who ran a very engaging workshop for our team on ESL games. The team are still using those tactics today, and pass on that knowledge to other new team members who come on board.

The fifth was a friend of mine who runs a day care centre in Australia. She ran a workshop on effectively working with young children, which is knowledge I couldn’t provide my team with. She offered strategies and advice which the team still uses to this day.

And finally, a family friend who was a former high school sewing teacher came and taught our teachers and students about quilting and making different handicrafts. She provided us with our original design for our elephant toys, and kick started the product range for our handicraft business.



Our last foreign volunteer came to Human and Hope Association in 2014.

Although we had gotten excellent value out of the volunteers who were there to capacity build, our team had enough knowledge and a great succession plan, so we didn’t require assistance any more. We allocated funding each year for our team to participate in external workshops run by local training companies, a few of our team members were studying in university or English school on scholarships, and I was still holding weekly development workshops, which were eventually entirely taken over by our local staff and Khmer board and volunteers.


I left Cambodia in 2017, this time, for good.

I was successful in developing Human and Hope Association into a professional community centre, focused on outcomes as opposed to output. The local team of paid staff now earn competitive wages, with the staff turnover being incredibly low because they feel empowered in making their own decisions and running the programs in the way they want to. We have seen 17 families move out of the poverty bracket (as measured by the local commune data) and stay out, for a minimum of a year. 50 preschool students have graduated and transitioned to public school, with 98% remaining there. Our English language program has a 90% pass rate, up from 50% in 2013. Staff and board members have won international awards for their work.

I guarantee you, if we hadn’t been so focused on making Human and Hope Association locally run, these outcomes wouldn’t have been possible. There is a place for volunteering overseas, but it should be undertaken with caution.


Through my five years living in Cambodia, I learnt the following lessons:

  • Locals need to run their own organisations. If the work you want to do will disempower staff (such as teaching children when there are qualified local teachers) or take jobs away from locals (such as building a house), you simply shouldn’t do it.
  • Any organisation you volunteer with should have a child protection policy and visitor policy that they put into action. All volunteers/visitors should have undergone a working with children check or equivalent police check from their home country as a basic due diligence measure.
  • There is a need for capacity building in some organisations, but you need to first determine that those staff aren’t able to get that knowledge locally, such as through a university scholarship or a training course. There must also be a succession/exit plan for passing on the information learnt to future staff, so there is no need for a person like you to present the same training again.
  • You shouldn’t be working directly with the community; the local staff are the consistent force in the community member’s lives, they know the culture well. You should be in the background, helping with capacity building if that is their need. The best volunteers are the ones who remain in the background; if you are wanting to volunteer for the glory and the ‘humble brag’, then your motivations are probably not genuinely about making a positive contribution/impact.
  • If you can’t find a suitable volunteer opportunity, be a responsible traveller instead, and support the local economy and social enterprises by ensuring you stay in locally owned and run guest houses, not run by backpackers trying to stretch their travel dollar. Eat at local food places and buy locally made souvenirs.


Human and Hope Association has a wonderful learning and development plan in place that takes advantage of local knowledge. They have no need for foreign volunteers. Whilst some people get offended when I tell them, ‘no thanks’, please remember that it’s not about you or your ego and good intentions. It is about what the local community needs. Don’t go to organisations with what you think is best for them; it is up to local organisations to tell you what will be effective in supporting them achieve their mission. This kind of work needs to be community led and driven, and if countries like Cambodia are to truly break free from the shackles of mismanaged aid, volunteers and irresponsible tourism, then we need to educate ourselves on what best practice volunteering looks like and leave our egos at home.


Sally Hetherington is President of Human and Hope Association Incorporated, an Australian fundraising and advocacy charity that supports a community centre in Siem Reap. She writes about Cambodia, sustainable development and voluntourism on her blog. To find our more about the work of Human and Hope Association, head to their website. To purchase their ethically-made handicrafts, visit their online store. The main image shows Sally’s last day at Human and Hope Association in 2016.

My Journey with Learning Service

This guest post is written by Amanda Wind, who is currently in Thailand as a volunteer English teacher.

I’m 19 years old and embarking on my first international trip to Peru. Offered as an annual study abroad with the Honors Program at my university, I jumped at the chance to travel and learn more from others. For ten weeks leading up to this spring break trip, my class read and discussed material warning of the possible negative impacts of foreign aid or short-term volunteer work. During our 10-day trip, we would be visiting several social enterprises to learn about their projects and how they are impacting the community. The focus of the trip was learning, not service based, where we visited women’s weaving cooperatives and saw how Quechua peoples are trying to preserve their heritage in the face of globalization. After the trip, we would all present on which project deserves the money we fundraised.


I was bright-eyed and eager to help these initiatives by raising money from friends and family online. Now, I cringe every time I think of the language I used to describe the indigenous communities we visited. Without proper reflection on my actions, I had painted a picture of poor people in villages who needed Americans to donate and save them. At the end of my post, I thanked donors for “saving the lives of Peruvians”. My fundraising goal was exceeded and we were able to donate money to a project run by local community members to build bathrooms at a school. I came back to the US with a passion to travel and help others, but a lack of maturity or self-awareness to understand how my own cultural biases can negatively impact the people who I aimed to “help”. From posing for pictures handing out clothes to school children to the language I used to talk about Peruvians, there are so many things I did on that trip which I would avoid at all costs now. At the wise age of 21, I feel so ashamed to have continued the stereotypes that reinforce the western savior complex.

Fast forward a year and I am 20 years old, heading to Cambodia and Vietnam on another study abroad with my university. We had spent the semester before the trip learning about the culture, economics, politics, and history of both countries in preparation for 3 weeks abroad. Again, we discussed how unsustainable volunteer projects can leave communities in disarray. I understood the issues and felt like I had learned more about the pitfalls of my trip to Peru, but most of the concepts wouldn’t be concrete for me until I landed on the ground in Cambodia.

Our group spent ten days with Claire and Untac, two dynamic leaders from PEPY Tours (Claire of course also being the co-founder of Learning Service!). During our time in Cambodia, we visited various social enterprises and NGOs, mostly run by Khmers, who were working to meet the needs they saw in their communities. Every evening the group convened for serious and often difficult discussions about what we had learned. Imagine a group of university students arguing about how our American upbringings impact the lenses with which we view issues such as foreign aid, development, and short-term volunteer positions. The conversations didn’t stop at dinner and often ran into the night in our hotel rooms or on long bus rides. While the trip was short, Claire and Untac made it one of the most impactful ten days of my life, ultimately pushing me further along my path of wanting to serve others in the best way possible. I reflected on my own intentions, skills, and goals which resulted in me checking my ego on several occasions.

Fast forward another year and I am 21 on my way to Belize for ten days as my final study abroad before graduation. We spend our time co-teaching in classes at a school my university has a partnership with. For 30 years, the education faculty has collaborated with the primary school to work on professional development and teacher training, while offering American teacher candidates the opportunity to learn from another school system. Professors from the education faculty visit the school 2-3 times per year and have hosted several Belizean teachers for graduate programs at our university.


As a special education major, I was placed in a classroom that had two students identified with disabilities. I spent the first day observing the classroom teacher and getting to know my students. For the rest of the week, I was able to work individually with them to build reading skills that had been neglected due to a lack of resources for special education. By the end of the week, the students had made a lot of progress, but I was disheartened to see there wouldn’t be any additional support for them after we left. The classroom teacher asked me questions about what she could do to differentiate and help these students grow. Based on input from the administration, my professors led a teacher workshop to help decide how to group students and interpret the data they had collected on the last visit. Although the partnership is consistent and strong, it seemed that we had to adjust our expectations to reflect the slow-moving nature of Belize.

On this trip, I felt like I was finally putting the values of learning service to use. With a sustainable partnership model and an attitude of learning first, I was able to use my skills as a special educator to help provide tools and resources to a teacher who felt lost having kids with disabilities in her classroom. I learned a lot about how school systems can differ from the American ones I have experienced. This time in Belize gave me a small glimpse at what it would be like to teach in Thailand with Fulbright.

Six months later, I was cracking open Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad on a plane to Thailand where I would begin teaching English with the U.S. Student Fulbright Program. It had been a year since I submitted my application and I was eager to get started. I chose Thailand after I fell in love with Southeast Asia on my previous study abroad and wanted to learn/see more. Given I had graduated college a year early, I didn’t feel ready to accept a full-time teaching position (and all the stress that comes with it). I wanted to be thrust out of my comfort zone and grow both personally and professionally. Thinking of the learning service model, I chose a program where I would be a supplementary English teacher, rather than in charge of students’ entire curriculum. The Fulbright program in Thailand has been established for more than a decade with many supports and reflections in place for their volunteers. The office also chooses Thai teachers to spend a year at an American university teaching language to facilitate cross-cultural exchange.


For a month in Bangkok, the 15 person cohort learned survival Thai language, teaching methods, and Thai culture. We also got to spend a week with the predecessors from our schools. I was amazed to find a bookshelf full of teaching resources, lesson plans, and props that had been accumulated from the eight previous teachers placed at my school. While this is only my fourth week in Ban Fon, I have already felt so welcomed into my community and school. Teachers in the English department frequently leave fruit at my doorstep for breakfast and are helping me learn more Thai to communicate with others in the community. So far, I’ve learned to relax more and not take myself too seriously. The “sabai sabai” attitude is present in every aspect of life here and I’m embracing it more each day.

I am trying to be conscious of respecting cultural norms, such as wearing more conservative clothing, always saying yes to snacks, and showing respect by greeting elders with a wai (prayer hands near the head). I know this year will be a rollercoaster of emotions as I adjust to life in another culture and try to get by with a language barrier. So far, I have been laughing at myself a lot more and accepting situations as they come to me.

While there is no perfect way to serve a community or issue, I’ve learned that being reflective and conscious of how my actions affect others will make this year a valuable experience for myself and my Thai students. I know I will learn much more from my year in Thailand than my students will learn from me in our limited time, and knowing that is exactly what learning service is about.


Amanda Wind recently graduated from the University of North Florida, majoring in special education. She is now teaching English with the US Student Fulbright Program based in Ban Fon, Thailand. Her hobbies include reading, traveling, being at the beach, hiking, and almost anything where she can enjoy the sunshine! When she eventually returns to the US, Amanda plans to teach students with disabilities and be an advocate for their needs in the public school setting. She is excited about the journey of teaching in a foreign country and is eager to grow both professionally and personally. The main photo is from a mangrove project in Kampot, Cambodia.

Experience: Looking Back, We Were Naïve

This is a guest post written by Dur Montoya and Luis Barreto (pictured here in Morocco) about encountering corruption while attempting to arrange a volunteer placement.

We were in Morocco as part of a trip around the world, and we thought it would be cool to do some volunteering. Not being sure of how to go about it, we researched on Google and clicked on the first NGO that came up, and just emailed them asking if they wanted help. It was a children’s centre based in Marrakech. We quickly got a reply from someone claiming to be the director of the organisation, with an overview of volunteer responsibilities, the rules and the costs.

We were travelling on a budget so we weren’t able to pay the volunteer fees plus expenses, but as we are both media and film professionals we thought we would have something useful to offer the organisation in exchange for hosting us. So we filled in the form anyway and sent some examples of our media work, asking whether they would waive the fees if we took professional photos for them.

We soon got an email back from the director accepting our proposal. He said that instead of us going to the children’s centre he would prefer us to visit another project which was based in a village called Asni in the mountains, which supported women in agriculture. The email made other promises too, like offering for us to do a photography exhibition with our photos. We were happy to support in whatever way we could, but it wasn’t our main goal to take photos for an exhibition.

The deal we eventually worked out over email was that we would volunteer for one week in Asni to take photos, and that accommodation, food and transport would all be provided, included an airport pick up. But when we arrived at the Marrakesh airport there was no-one there. We called the number we had for the director, but there was no answer. Speculating that something urgent had come up, or that there was confusion about our arrival time, we travelled into town by ourselves and checked into a hostel to wait.

We researched on Google and clicked on the first NGO that came up.

It was two days before we heard anything else – another email from the director, saying that he needed more time to arrange the accommodation in Asni. He suggested that while we were waiting we go to a different location first, a tourism program that supports the NGO in a place called Nbook. The email explained that we would have to pay for it, as it was a different program, but that we could get a discount by taking a few pictures. He said that during this time he would arrange everything else for the experience in Asni.

With nothing else to do, we agreed to the plan and paid $200 for a 4-day tourist experience. It seemed fair.

Back in Marrakesh, the director came to meet us, and introduced his “assistant” who looked to be a kid of about 17 or 18 years’ old. We were expecting to go to the NGO office, to talk about the women’s project and what kind of photos they wanted, and also to confirm that everything was being arranged for free in return for the photos we would take. Instead, the assistant took us straight to Asni after the meeting. We arrived at night and were shown to a homestay, where we were informed that the next day we would have to walk up a mountain. We were unsure as to why we had to do this, but we assumed that might be where the project was.

The assistant indicated that it was our job to take pictures of the local women in the area. So we started trying to talk and be friendly with the women. But when we tried to take photos they acted aggressively and seemed unhappy, so we stopped. We tried to clarify with the assistant about whether the NGO had explained the project or obtained permission from the women, and the assistant kept encouraging us to take more photos of them. It felt weird to us so we only took a few pictures.

To go up the mountain we were given a guide and a donkey. We asked why we needed a donkey, and we were told that the donkey would carry food for us as there wasn’t food where we were going. That seemed strange to us, and even stranger when the assistant said he was not going with us.

So we started walking up this mountain, behind the donkey. We walked for five hours and had not seen anything – no community, no local women, just groups of tourists trekking with donkeys the same way we were. When we asked what we should be taking photos of, the guide told us to photograph the view.

We had started to get very suspicious by this point, so we stopped a group of tourists and asked them what was at the top of the mountain. They replied there was nothing there, that we were in a trekking area for tourists and people go there just to see the peak. So we immediately called the director, but of course he did not pick up. As we were in the middle of nowhere we had no choice but to keep walking. In about an hour, we came to a tourist camping ground.

We were frustrated and exhausted. We stayed that night in the camp ground as it was too late to return, but decided to head back the next morning. The guide was upset with us, as he expected for us to continue the trek, but we insisted.

The next day we arranged to get to a small town where we could meet the director and find out what was going on. He arrived in a taxi and seemed flustered and angry. He argued that he took us out of the the “normal tourist system” and that it was dangerous and expensive for him. He said he had paid a bribe for us to be allowed to volunteer in this way, and that now he owed money because of us. He demanded we give him our pictures and also a huge fee, which we didn’t have.

That’s when things turned really ugly, and he started threatening us. He said that Marrakesh is a small place and that he is well-connected, and he would be able to track us down if we tried to hide from him. At this point we were really scared, and we gave him around $200 which was all we had. But we couldn’t give him the photos as we would need a computer to download them. He seemed to accept that and said he’d take us to a computer, but not before taking us to another tourist area and forcing us to take more pictures for him.

Eventually we got back to the hostel in Marrakesh. The director insisted that we complete a feedback form asking us about our experience, and he said we were required to do it before he left. Remembering his earlier threats, we filled out the form and just had to lie and say everything was fine. We were too scared to tell the truth.

We wished that we had understood the principles of learning service before we had embarked on our trip.

Looking back on this experience, we can’t believe how naïve we were. We did no research into the organization at all, and we never even made it to the NGO office. Now we realise that the person who styled himself as the “director” was probably nothing to do with the organisation, and the NGO may never have known we were there.

We have gone on to do a lot of volunteering in places around the world, much of it in exchange for our media skills. We wished that we had understood the principles of learning service before we had embarked on our trip – if only we had taken the time to research the organization and also be clear on their need for photos, we probably would not have ended up in such a scary situation!

Luis Barreto and Dur Montoya are a Colombian couple who are the founders of Zoom IN social impact media company .They have spent the best part of the last decade travelling around the world, volunteering and working with NGOs and social enterprises spread their message through multi-media. They were the masterminds behind and producers of the Learning Service videos. Part of this story is quoted in Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad.