Learning from Peers The benefits of living with other volunteers

Posted on Posted in SDG-017, Stories

Pictured above are some of the CCT volunteers here in Chiang Mai, some from EIL and some from other organizations and places, as we got our picture taken on a beach in Koh Phi Phi after an exciting boat encompassing snorkling, a visit to Monkey bay and even a swim in Maya bay (where ‘the Beach’ was filmed).

At First Strangers, Then Friends; What I’ve Learned
Shortly after returning to Chiang Mai, we bid adieu to our two American CCT volunteers, David and Claire, who have been living in the volunteer house since before any of us from EIL even arrived. Given the weekend of travel, laughs and banter that we shared in Phu Ket and the departure of two of our own housemates, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much I have learned and experienced thanks to the volunteers I live with and others I have come across during my stay here in lovely Chiang Mai.

Coming to Thailand I didn’t really have any clear vision of what my stay here would be like and how I would grow as a result, but I must say that I didn’t expect to have learned as much as I have from the other volunteers. Sure, I thought I’d get to know them a bit and we’d be having meals together, but I didn’t anticipate the insights, friendships and reflections that would come as a result. Indeed while I have already learned so much from the Thai people and look forward to better understanding the culture, ways of thinking and language here, so far I have actually learned most about myself, my values and attitudes and other people, places and things from my interactions with the other volunteers than from interacting with Thai people alone.

The learning has mainly been twofold; firstly I’ve learned much about people’s stories, backgrounds and disciplines which has informed my own values, attitudes, questions and direction and secondly from working and travelling with others, and finding out how they approach things, see things and do things differently to me. There is just so much we can learn from each other, especially when we come from different places, backgrounds and disciplines and this diversity has been very thought provoking and enjoyable to bear witness to.

People from Different Cultures and Countries can have very Mutually Beneficial Relationships
I think the conversation I had with one of the CCT volunteers, Hayley, is one that will leave its mark for a very long time. I was fortunate to meet Hayley as she finished up the week I started, but over a few drinks with the others on a balmy evening at the bus bar I enjoyed an inspiring conversation about her travels. She had been awarded a stipend to cover fourteen months of travel on a particular theme, for which she chose art therapy. As part of that she had travelled to Zambia, Bolivia, Chiang Mai, Australia and London, and during it she had worked with people in the HIV area. During school she learned Spanish, and though she didn’t do much of it in College, when she went to Bolivia she picked it up again when working there and interacting with the locals and staff in the HIV centre. What really struck me was that when she was in Brighton a few months later, she got a call from one of the staff in Bolivia who was going to a conference in London on HIV, and he invited her to come and translate for her. As a result she had the opportunity to attend the conference, visit the Terrace Seeker Trust (which is a major HIV organization in England) and go to a local hospital, so she got to see HIV action at three levels in the one day! Conversations like that have really made me think about, question and consider my own plans and options, and is something I am deeply grateful for.

There have many instances with the other volunteers both from Ireland and abroad where conversations have really made me appreciate things or see things in a different light. It soon became apparent here in Chiang Mai that people from different cultures and countries can have very mutually beneficial relationships thanks to the different experiences we have of things back home, be it NGOs working in Ireland on LGBTQ rights that may not exist in Thailand, events and plans that are executed differently here to what I’m used to back home, little bits and pieces that I think would be good back home, there are so many little insights and perspectives that we can all learn from each other. However as I hope to have shown you, there is also a huge amount you can learn from other volunteers, especially given the lack of a language barrier and how close we grow to each other living together for this time, and I think that makes this experience abroad even more rewarding.

Positive Working Relationships
Where the two I think come together is at work, as well as in many other situations. For example, at Mplus+ (The agency myself and Maria are volunteering at that works in promoting good sexual health and LGBTQ rights), I have learned so much from my partner in crime, Maria Flavin (Another EIL Travel Award Winner, you can see her profile and blogs here http://www.eilireland.org/users/maria-flavin). Together we’ve been working on a few different projects with Mplus+, and it has been so fascinating to see how she does things. Maria is studying international development in University and has a strong interest in sexual health. Among what I’ve learned from her include how to better communicate with people, especially when there is a language barrier (taking my time, using simpler sentence structures etc.) and also on how to be proactive in solving problems through making connections with people. For example, when we were helping out with a grant form for Mplus+, one of the objectives (among quite a few) involved outreach to migrant sex workers, and Maria took it upon herself to arrange a meeting (through a connection we had made earlier) with a person in the Burmese Study Centre to figure out ways of advancing the education and health of migrant Male Sex Workers (mainly Shan in this part of Thailand). How she listens, gets the message across, and makes connections have been just some of the valuable lessons I have been learning from her.

I think the same can be said from all the little conversations, shared experiences and casual banter I’ve had with the other volunteers. Not only this, but I also feel these experiences have led me to think more about where my own strengths lie, how to recognize what other people excel at and how we can work together to achieve more, to have a broader base of thinking, and more.

Adrienne Rich once wrote ‘Life is a series of brief amazing moments, each one making possible the next’, and I look forward to enjoying many more shared experiences and reflecting upon them in the coming weeks. Until next time!

Action at home

1. I wrote a guide to sexual health and a guide to where to get free condoms, and then published these guides on our secret UCD LGBTQ+ facebook group with over five hundred members, our website and printed them off to have along with the other sexual health materials at our events.
2. It was targeted primarily at MSM students in UCD, but also at students in Dublin in general, as particularly with MSM the incidence of HIV has been rising quite dramatically (about 30% on last year) in the past few years, and at the same time awareness of HIV isn’t great, so I felt it was important for people to get tested and to use prevention and for cost not to be a barrier as it can be.
3. UCD Dublin
4. I published these in September and then had them at our weekly coffee mornings at the LGBTQ+ society throughout the year.