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The "Right" Time to Volunteer Abroad

Shanna poses with local woman in Ghana, where she completed a research project in 2005.

After seven years, Shanna turns her back on "adulthood" to return to Africa.

This year, I am sailing through the season of New Year’s resolutions with ease. After considerable negotiation, planning, and a lot of support from my partner, family, and friends, I am excited to be starting off 2013 by putting my dreams into action and taking control of my own path.

In under a week, I depart Ottawa for Tanzania, where I will be volunteering with Youth Challenge International (YCI) to support the local programming of ZANGOC, a cluster of community-based organizations focused on HIV/AIDS prevention. I’m experiencing an obvious mix of anxiety and excitement, and plan to arrive with an open mind, an open heart, a healthy sense of humour—and well-packed supplies, which I am currently working to assemble.

Returning to Africa to do on-the-ground public health work has been a personal dream of mine since 2005, when I travelled to Ghana as an anthropology/health sciences research assistant with the University of Calgary. Ghana was an amazing experience, however I remember feeling as though I was “taking” more than I was “giving”—the research questions that motivated us did not necessarily align with the pressing challenges that local communities wanted to address.

I came back to Canada from Ghana with a number of things (besides Campylobacteriosis): 1) a firmly entrenched passion for global health; 2) a craving to learn more about the immense cultural and biological diversity of the African continent; and 3) a vow to return to Africa to volunteer my skills and energy on a project identified by locals for the benefit of their own local community—to be an ally and a facilitator of positive change.

I had plenty of good intention to go back right away and explore my passion for on-the-ground global health work, but life. . .sort of happened. I finished my undergraduate degree, got a job, got married, moved to the UK and did a Master’s degree, and then recommitted myself to gainful employment back in Canada. At various points, I threw my name in for a few volunteer opportunities (and was even offered four different CIDA-funded youth internships).

However, when it came down to actually taking the leap to go, the time was just not right—there were competing priorities and pressures, and the opportunity cost seemed too high. In a tough job market, I decided it was best to play it safe—to moor in the harbour with a steady job that I could count on rather than venture out and not know what I was coming back to. I resolved myself to the fact that I would go “later,” when the time was “right.”

Last year, I started to look ahead and realized that the time will never be perfectly “right”—in fact, I'm entering into a period of my life when it will likely get harder to go abroad for a chunk of time, as I begin to dig into a career path, plan a family, take on a mortgage and all of that “adult” stuff. In a limited job market, the current reality is also that career planning for young professionals such as myself has become less about planning and more about opportunism—a quest for what jobs are actually available and not what necessarily fits one’s interests and strengths.

While I have been very fortunate in the opportunities I’ve had, I have come to appreciate that it takes extra effort and commitment to grab hold of the reins of your career in an environment of cutbacks and limited job prospects. If my passion is global health, then I need to go gain on-the-ground experience to open doors for myself. If my dream is to see the world, experience new cultures, and dedicate myself to being a facilitator of positive change, then only I can make it happen. And so, here I am—the time is not perfect, but it is pretty good—and I’m grabbing hold of the reins.

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Shanna Sunley

Shanna Sunley holds a Masters in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). She has diverse non-profit, government and research experience in Canada, the UK and Ghana, and has visited over 30 countries. She is currently a Youth Challenge International volunteer in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

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