I knew it was going to be a bad day when I vomited in the bushes.
I had been in Quito, Ecuador for 48 hours, and altitude sickness was plaguing every fiber of my body. Of course I decided I couldn’t keep from hurling any longer at the exact moment I passed through the security gates at my new place of employment. On the first day.
I tried to gracefully wipe the vomit off my face and forget about the continuing catapults ravaging my stomach. After all, this was the day I had been waiting for, preparing for, procuring grants for. I was in Quito to work for a non-profit law firm, their chief objective to aid and assist refugees (primarily Colombian) as they transitioned to life in Ecuador. My job description? Prepare and conduct workshops to educate said refugees about their legal rights, as well as social services available to them.
After a tour of the building and introduction to my new office (it might have had an archaic computer hiding beneath an inch of dust, but it was still my office) I was finally feeling a bit more composed—and a bit less queasy. A rush of self-confidence flowed through; I just knew I was going to rock these workshops.
And then my day got a little worse:
A knock on the door. New boss enters my office. New boss presents me with nearly 100 pages of company protocol (in Spanish). New boss tells me to read it that night. New boss then informs me I won’t actually be giving any workshops. Turns out they’re short on lawyers, so I’ll be giving legal advice to clients and assisting in the refugee visa application process. No big deal. I’ll start the following day at 9am. New boss leaves the room. With him exits my confidence.
First I was surprised. What did they mean I wouldn’t be giving workshops? That was the only reason why I came to Ecuador in the first place.
Then followed feelings of apprehension. I had no legal training; there was no way my Spanish was going to survive legal jargon! What if the refugees couldn’t understand me or if I gave them the wrong advice or if they were sent back to Colombia because of an incompetency on my part?
In its turn anger took hold. Even if I was a native Spanish-speaking lawyer, how could I possibly prepare for this is under 24 hours? What did they expect from me?
I don’t know if it was a result of the altitude or the anxiety, but the queasiness was back.
I arrived the following morning at 9am on the dot. Forcing myself to walk a little taller and smile a little bigger, I somehow made it through that second day of work. And all the other days that would follow.
In the end, I didn’t just ‘make it through’; I actually fell in love with my job. There were certainly days when I felt completely inadequate because of my lack of legal training, but more than anything else there were amazing encounters with people. I listened to countless refugees tell me their stories—why they had left Colombia, how they had made it to Ecuador, what life was like in their small villages on the border.
I saw women break into tears when I handed them the documents that would assure their ability to obtain a legal visa. I myself had to hold back numerous tears as I was changed and inspired by their experiences. Not to mention I learned far more about refugee issues than any classroom course could have taught.
More than anything else, serving as a legal adviser taught me the importance of being open to new opportunities I never would have thought possible; to push myself to try new things and have the self-confidence that I can in fact do those things.
What started off as a horrible day transformed into one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
Volunteering abroad can be a wonderful way to get to know people and places intimately, while also using your skills to give back to the host community. While you won’t change the world, you can certainly make a difference in the lives of a few—including your own. When volunteering abroad, always be sure to choose a program carefully.