Leaving a comfortable job to go and volunteer overseas might seem like a big step, but you’ll never regret it, says Sofia Fernandez.
Years ago, I would not have pegged myself for a sabbatical mid career type of person. But that’s exactly what I did. I chose to go be a team leader on a volunteering project in Uganda, for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it scared the crap out of me. It was the best decision I ever made.
Not to make you hate me (I’m actually nice I promise) but I’ve always been that high-achiever kid. As & A*s, a top university, living abroad working for PWC at 20, and then landing my dream management accounting graduate scheme straight out of university and ultimately moving to London (as that’s where everyone seems to go after Uni). I had a plan, or moreso, the graduate scheme I was on had a plan— finish your exams in three years and aim to be a CFO by the time you’re 30… and I lapped it up.
But something changed in the last year or so, I’d been finding out a bit more about myself as I’d grown up and realised that different things mattered to me (more than achieving), namely having fun and enjoying life. But another one of the things I realised is that I was starting to feel restless and agitated. I felt like I hadn’t actually made a choice, like a big choice, that would influence and change my life, in ages. Yeah I’d made choices on Universities and things but those are small scale, low risk choices in the end. I didn’t want to look back on my life and not have tried to do more, not done something that scared the crap out of me, not done something that I really wasn’t sure I could complete, not done something that might open doors or questions that I wouldn’t know how to answer. (I haven’t completely lost my achiever thoughts though, as obviously this would also enhance any career prospects too, but let’s focus on the other bits as they sound so much sexier!)
1) Question yourself: Am I really doing what I want to be doing?
Do you really love your job? Is it really using all your skills? Do you even know what your main strengths are? Have you ever tried anything else? As I’m starting to think now; until you try other things you can’t know what else might be out there and what might be a better fit for you.
For example, I thought that I might find I wanted a career in NGOs after this experience, but actually I was shown the opposite—but that’s still a really important learning. Instead in Uganda I was inspired by how quickly and bravely people would set up a small business or side hustle, so this is the door I’ll be opening after this.
2) Be brave. Be a risk taker
It’s far too easy to continue to do the things you’ve always done, never push out your comfort zone. It’s also easy to think “no I couldn’t do that, that’s not me.” This one I think can resonate with some people within the charity sector—many of us don’t feel like activists, we aren’t going on marches every weekend—but we can all find our way that we can get involved, and Restless Development and ICS has done this for me. For me, that’s combining the great business experience that you have within the charity sector – either in how you carry out and lead your team abroad, or what you do when you come back and continue to volunteer.
3) Get Inspired
I just can’t stress enough how massively inspiring, eye-opening and enlightening this experience could be for you. I would write more here but I’m limited by a word count so you will just have to experience it for yourself.
Outside of the placement, I also challenge you to inspire yourself to do more too. After this programme I’m personally way more inspired to do more in my general weekly life to help others through mentoring. I’m going to challenge myself with Oxfam’s Fast Fashion campaign as I’m a Primark loser, and I’m also now thinking about what side business I would like to startup in the future. These are such big and bloody exciting things after just 2.5 months abroad and I want the same for you.
4) Get Connected
You will meet some utterly amazing people, both here and in your placement country. The ICS trainers and staff are also pretty inspiring people too.
5) Gain business Skills GALORE
Actually our companies should pay to send us to do such experiences, as when or if we do go back we will be returning as business GODS.
6) Learn how to communicate and resolve conflicts
Think you can communicate before you get here, think again. Communicating across cultural barriers can be really tough and require everyone to be open minded and ask questions as to why we act in different ways. We had houses of people not talking to each other due to simple and small cultural miscommunications! Once you’ve mastered this you are now a world class communicator.
What does living and working with your team and often being quite remote from other people mean? So much conflict and conflict resolution. This is really good stuff to learn how to deal with and move on.
7) Decisions under pressure
The medical team hasn’t turned up for your event. The music system isn’t working? You’re in a car going one way with two volunteers and find another one is left in the city and needs support., what do you do? You will never have to think so quickly, on quite heavy and sometimes health and safety related issues, as you will here. Learn – Enjoy.
So after reading this I’m hoping you walk into work tomorrow and start negotiating that sabbatical! Or at least I hope you take a bit more time to think over how much you’re loving your current life and job.
And if the idea of being a team leader scares you? Do it.
I'm 26 from Cambridge. Graduated from Bath Uni in International Management and Spanish. With this I spent one year living in Chile and doing an Audit internship with PWC.
After graduating I joined Mars Chocolate company, who I have been working for since this (4ish years) in various finance roles both in the U.K. and for one year in Düsseldorf, Germany. I’ve recently finished all my accounting exams and started a one year sabbatical in October 2019.
I’m really interested in sport: netball, football, running 5-10ks, gym etc you name it. Painting and jewellery making are other interests I’m getting more into now too.