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.