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Andy: UNA Exchange taught me skills that I could never have learnt at University

Read a really inspiring story of Andy, who took part in many volunteering activities in Wales and abroad. This volunteering journey helped him start a career in humanitarian work abroad.

Photo : Sam Tarling / Oxfam

Andy was an active volunteer with UNA Exchange in the early 2000s. He took part in many volunteering activities in Wales and abroad, including a Long Term EVS in Iceland. He spent a time working with us as a staff member, co-ordinating a large programme of work in Carmarthenshire.

ANDY’S STORY

“When in my last year of University, I was looking for volunteering opportunities overseas, for the summer after finishing my studies. I came across UNA Exchange at a stall at a Careers Fair, and decided to apply for a project. What attracted me to UNA  Exchange was the low cost compared to other volunteering organisations, and the wide variety of projects on offer, as well as the fact that volunteers on projects come from so many different countries – most other volunteering organisations that I had seen were mainly aimed exclusively at British volunteers, but I wanted to volunteer alongside people from different countries. I was keen to improve my French so I volunteered on a community project, helping a small village in rural France to renovate an ancient castle – it was manual labour so a nice change from student life, but the best thing was the intercultural exchange between the volunteers, all of whom came from other European countries, and included a lot of young people from poor, migrant backgrounds in French cities, as well as the friendliness and gratitude that was shown to us by the villagers.

“People in the Welsh Valleys don’t like the English”
The experience changed my life, and led to me volunteering the following year to lead a workcamp in Wales. I remember the first project (workcamp) I led in Wales especially fondly. We were a group of about 15 young people from Europe and Asia, working in a nature reserve on a disused coalmine, in the Welsh Valleys near Cardiff. One thing I remember very clearly was people from London telling me that I should be careful because “people in the Welsh Valleys don’t like the English”, “you won’t be welcome there” and other unfair judgements that people were making – it was like people in London had more preconceptions about other parts of the UK than about other countries, which is strange… When I got there, I found that people were exceptionally welcoming and friendly, and it was great to work alongside young people from the local villages too. I met some great people and learnt a lot about Welsh as well as other cultures. That also opened my eyes to how much there was to discover in the UK, and how little I knew and how wrong my preconceptions of small Welsh villages was. I felt inspired by the people I met, and how much I was learning about others, and myself, so the next year I volunteered in the team running the training for leaders of workcamps in Wales that year, then onto an EVS in Iceland, and then to a paid job running workcamps in Wales for 4 months.

“Volunteering exposed me to a lot of new challenges, and helped me become much more confident at dealing with people in a wide range of circumstances.”

I learnt to manage people from different countries
I was amazed how easy it is to form friendships with people from a whole range of other cultures, when you have a reason to interact and are living and working together closely for a period of time, as well as the extent to which most groups of young people, from different backgrounds, bonded to the point that they were upset to leave each other at the end of the project. I remember the people much better than the actual projects that we were working on. In the end, the people were the best thing, both other international volunteers, and the local community, and the actual project could be good or bad, but if it was a good group then we enjoyed ourselves and it felt like a successful project. Volunteering exposed me to a lot of new challenges, and helped me become much more confident at dealing with people in a wide range of circumstances. Most definitely, that experience has helped me learn to be a manager of people from different work sectors and different countries, which is essential to my current job. Volunteering also gave me a huge confidence boost. 

Everyone should spent some time volunteering
UNA Exchange was a big part of the gradual learning and development, and series of steps that got me bit by bit to where I am today. I secured a job in a humanitarian response with an NGO in Chad (Central Africa), supporting refugees from Darfur (across the border in Sudan), this then led to other jobs in Congo, South Sudan and now in Jordan. The skills and knowledge, and especially the ability to work with people from a wide range of backgrounds, and to always keep an open mind, certainly was instrumental in teaching me to do the job I do today, where I manage an Oxfam project providing water and sanitation to refugees in the Al Za’Atari refugee camp on Jordan’s border with Syria. UNA Exchange taught me skills that I could never have learnt at University. 

I would encourage everyone to spend a period of time volunteering if they can. Maybe start in your own community, with just a day or two of volunteering, then look for other opportunities outside of your country and comfort zone which can broaden your horizons. UNA Exchange can help you find opportunities which are funded too, such as EVS, if money is an issue.”

FOLLOW ANDY!

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  • Check out which training opportunities we have for you and gain valuable skills for your future life and career! Choose from a range of courses such as leadership, international youth work, intercultural understanding, and much more.

  • Would you like to become a leader of one of our International Volunteer Projects in Wales this summer? We are always on the lookout for project leaders and we offer special training to develop leadership skills. Find out more about our training opportunities and get in touch with us to discuss your possibilities: exchanges@unaexchange.org