One of the great things about CIEE is that they offer a variety of volunteering opportunities with local Czech organizations around Prague. There are many reasons to volunteer while abroad: to build your resume, to give back to the community, to learn about various organizations, to immerse yourself more fully in Czech culture, and to foster relationships with Czech people.
With CIEE you can volunteer in positions in any field from ranging teaching English at an elementary school to interning for Forum 2000 (an international democracy conference); visiting sick children at a hospital to creating films with the Jihlava Film Festival; and anywhere in between. You can also choose how often you volunteer, from 1 hour a week up to 8 hours a week. Some positions are more demanding, but it is up to you to coordinate your schedule with your organization (I will discuss this point a bit later). But right now, I will tell you a little about my own volunteering experience, and then offer a few tips for those of you who may decide to volunteer abroad in the future.
Here in Prague I am volunteering for an organization called La Strada. La Strada is an international organization specializing in the prevention of human trafficking and promotion of human rights. La Strada has many offices around the world, one of which is in Prague. I first heard of La Strada when I took a global human trafficking class at IU my sophomore year (which was actually taught by a Czech professor); thus, I was really excited when I heard that they had an open volunteer position. I actually applied for this volunteer position a few months before I studied abroad.
For some of the positions, it is necessary to go through a more detailed application process, either because there is only a limited number of spots available or because the field of interest is more specialized and may need a more qualified worker. After I submitted my application, I then met with the volunteer coordinator at La Strada upon my arrival in Prague, and she agreed that I would be a good fit for the position. Now, I make it seem like this was an official, stressful process and that there was a great deal of competition, but it was actually way more laid back than I was expecting. Honestly, before this first meeting I really had no idea what I would actually be doing for the organization.
As it turns out, they wanted to me to teach English to a few of the employees at their office; English is the “working language” which they use to communicate with other offices and at international conferences and events. Thus, it is important for the employees to improve their English knowledge and speaking. I have never taught English, but I told the coordinator that I would try; this was still great, as most of the people need mainly conversation. I was to be their English backbone for the next couple of months.
Since this first meeting I have been volunteering for a little over a month. I have about 7 “students” that I meet with individually for an hour once a week. It also takes me about 40 minutes to get there and back, depending on where I am. Thus, in total I devote around 8 hours a week to volunteering. My volunteering is thus considered a “special volunteering position,” which requires a more demanding schedule and a weekly written volunteering journal and reflection.
Eight hours doesn’t really sound like a lot, but considering that I have school, homework, social events, a host family, and traveling almost every weekend, I was a little weary of fitting all of this teaching into my schedule. I even considered telling La Strada that I would not be able to teach except for just a couple of hours due to how busy I already was. However, there is something quite valuable to learn about Czechs and their schedules: they are rarely consistent. Thus, on any given week volunteering, I may only teach half of the 7 or 8 students that I am signed up to teach.
The employees also have their own busy lives; sometimes they are out of town at a conference, in a meeting, or have too much work to meet with me. This cuts down on the amount of time spent volunteering, which is helpful, especially since I got to volunteer after a full day of school. Of course I would love to see each student every week, but I think it works out for both of us that the time schedule is a little less demanding. The only thing that is more difficult about this is that sometimes I don’t know that someone is not available for lessons until I get to the office. Then I either just have to go home, or we scramble to switch around the lesson times so that I don’t waste the trip over to their building. I think this is just a lesson in cultural adjustment, however.
I am used to things being written in stone and then upheld; Czech and European culture, however, is more relaxed about this. Thus I am learning to adjust, and even started to expect that the lesson schedule will suddenly change. I have learned, though, that all I need to do is ask them a day or two ahead of time who will or will not be available. This way I am informed and they have a reminder to tell me any about schedule adjustments. It’s all about being proactive, flexible, and cooperative in order to make sure that the arrangement works for everyone.
In addition to adjusting to the sudden schedule fluxes, I am also learning to become a teacher! I have never taught English before, so I was looking forward to and also nervous about having to teach 7 foreign students. Luckily, it is not formal teaching, but more conversational, so I don’t have to create lesson plans from scratch or anything like that. The first week of “classes” I just asked each person to tell me about themselves. This helped me gauge their English skill level and comfort with speaking English. I also asked each person to tell me the areas in which they wanted to improve and what topics they need to know how to discuss and talk about. Then each week, I either bring in some grammar work or just an idea for a topic that we discuss. A lot of times, the students will have their own materials or article or topic to discuss. Or I just ask them to tell me about their job or about their plans for the weekend, etc. For example, one week I edited a case report that the coordinator was working on. With her, I mainly help out with formal and legal language, proper word order and phrase structure. That same week, one of the social workers brought an article about a specific trafficking case. We read it, and I helped him with words and phrases that he didn’t understand. Thus the lessons are pretty relaxed, and I usually end up learning so much either about the student, about the organization, or about how much I don’t know about the English language!
Throughout this experience, I have learned so much. The first is reinforcement of that fact that when living in a new cultural, you MUST be flexible. This volunteering position would not be at all enjoyable if I got upset every time someone changed their schedule, or if La Strada didn’t work with me to meet my own needs. In addition, sometimes what I plan for a lesson never even gets discussed; but I must remember that adjusting to the students’ needs is what is most important. It is important to be flexible and understanding, but also to be proactive if you have any concerns to be addressed.
On the other hand, I have also learned a lot about the La Strada organization. Focusing on forced labor and trafficking of workers, they work very hard to work for the financial and labor rights of (mostly) migrant workers in the Czech Republic. Although I don’t work specifically on any cases or with any clients, it is a pleasure to be able to work with such an inspiring group of individuals. I highly recommend all of you to seriously consider volunteering while traveling abroad. It is a rewarding experience and will help you feel more connected to the local culture.
If you would like more information on La Strada, check out their website.