Laura Todd - Grants and Project Assistant, Bougainville

What inspired you to volunteer/apply for the programme?

The programme seemed like the perfect fit for my background and previous experiences with volunteering and travelling and matched my degree subjects really well.

It can sometimes be really hard to find opportunities to gain practical experience after University, so this programme is such an incredible pathway for graduates of development studies and other related disciplines.

What did volunteering give you?

Volunteering gave me so much more than I ever anticipated; it was the most challenging yet rewarding experience. All volunteers experience a huge amount of personal growth and find themselves becoming more resilient and adaptable to change throughout their assignments. It also gave me an incredible network of other volunteers who feel like family to me now.

What did you give volunteering?

As UniVols we all do our best and often it may not feel like we’re giving as much as we want or as we expected, but at the end of the experience I think you do realise that you’ve made a valuable difference in some way. I did my best to always be patient but stay persistent which helped me achieve results. I went into the experience being ready for anything and expecting tough times as well as good times, and I definitely think that mindset helped me a lot.

What was your assignment highlight?

Towards the end of my assignment when things started really progressing it became possible to see the differences I was making, which was so rewarding. After one of my last workshops, focused around how to apply for grants, some of my counterparts went on to apply for a New Zealand Government grant which I recently found out got accepted! It was such a relief to know that the work and resources I had made had genuinely created a positive result for my partner organisation.

What did you find most challenging?

There were so many different challenges along the way, and you get used to expecting the unexpected! I often had to manage situations that could be quite confronting, such as deaths or customary changes in my partner organisation and local community. It was important to always remain calm in these times and embrace the different ways that the local culture observed these processes, rather than comparing it to your own familiar New Zealand cultural norms.

All volunteers will feel strained and frustrated at times regardless of their assignment progression; it’s really important to not compare your progress to others and remind yourself you’re doing the best you can when things aren’t happening the way you’d like them to.

Did your assignment change after you arrived? How?

My assignment changed a lot throughout the year, as I built relationships in my partner organisation and figured out how I could actually create effective change. Once I had established plans to carry out workshops and developed some materials and resources, I ended up travelling quite a bit and making connections across different departments of my partner organisation. This was awesome because it meant I got to work with people who were passionate about different areas including education, health, disability services, and women’s empowerment to name a few.

What was it like working with the partner organisation?

VSA has a really diverse range of partner organisations and so every UniVol’s experience looks slightly different but my partner organisation was quite large and so it took a lot longer to figure things out and build genuine relationships. However, because of this, once I had built up those connections it meant that there were more opportunities for work in different areas.

It’s common to feel like an outsider in your partner organisation especially at the beginning and I would highly recommend throwing yourself into the environment as much as you can by showing up to the office each day, learning the local language, and not being afraid to put yourself out there!

How did the assignment help develop your personal and professional skills?

The assignment helped develop both personal and professional skills in ways that I often wasn’t even aware of until afterwards. The complexity of the different challenges that come up throughout your assignment make you become extremely adaptable and definitely help with your problem solving skills! In terms of personal development, all UniVols experience a huge amount of personal growth. There is so much opportunity to gain new confidence and inner strength, whether it’s through delivering a workshop to a room full of strangers or managing your own project for the first time, it’ll amaze you how much you can achieve!

What was the best part of working with your partner organisation? What did you find most challenging?

At the end of my assignment it became really clear that the best part of working with my partner organisation was the connections I’d built with my co-workers! At the beginning it can be really slow and frustrating as you struggle to find your place but once you do the time flies by. I can honestly say I wish I could’ve stayed longer than 10 months as it was so hard to say goodbye! The partner organisation often feels more like a community than the regular office workplace that we’re more familiar with. I met some of the most incredibly caring people I’ve ever known there and they helped make me feel at home every day.

What is some advice you would give to future UniVols?

Make sure to give it your all and don’t hold back! Time will fly by so try to make sure to take up every opportunity and say yes to things even when you might not feel like it! Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, people love it when you embarrass yourself and you’ve got to take it in your stride. If possible, always learn some of the local language as it will help you make connections with people.

Always remember to look out for yourself and connect with your fellow volunteers, as they will likely be feeling all the same emotions and fears that you are!