An interview with Stephanie Craig, Uniterra volunteer
Each year, hundreds of Canadians play a pivotal role in advancing international development efforts around the world through international volunteering. Through Uniterra’s Leave for Change program, Canadian employees are given an opportunity to make a direct and positive impact in support of local partners in fourteen developing countries. Together with our volunteers and local partners, we aim to improve the lives of marginalized people, particularly youth and women.
In July 2014, Stephanie Craig, Communications Manager at the Ontario Agricultural College, University of Guelph, chose to volunteer her time, skills, and expertise in Bostwana for three weeks through Leave for Change. We asked Stephanie to tell us a bit more about her experiences and lessons learned through participating in the program.
Leave for Change is designed for Canadian employees who want to share their skills while supporting and strengthening local organisations overseas. Can you tell us more about the organisation you volunteered with?
Stepping Stones International (SSI) is a youth development and community outreach organization in Mochudi, Botswana that serves orphaned and vulnerable youth and their caregivers. Through school counsellors and the community, SSI identifies youth who under-perform academically, live in abusive environments or have basic unmet needs. Through a holistic program, which combines life skills, leadership, psychosocial support and community mobilization they enable these youth to heal the scars of the past, reconnect with their lost childhood and grow into self-sufficient adults. They also have a major focus on community mobilization and advocacy, which they support through multiple programs and efforts.
What was your role as a volunteer in this organisation?
I spent three weeks with SSI as the Brand and Marketing Advisor. I worked to develop guiding documents to enhance SSI’s social media and digital presence and leverage their vast network of past volunteers. I also provided training that emphasized the importance of effective storytelling over simply sharing statistics. You can read more about my experience here: https://www.uoguelph.ca/hr/blogs/stephanie-craig
I think overall my role was mostly about enabling and encouraging the SSI staff. They had a great team and my role was more about enhancing their confidence and focus to move forward.
I often think that some of the small activities I did were the most important. One day I walked the SSI leadership team through a visioning exercise that asked them to think about the future of SSI and what success looks like. I wanted to know these details to ensure their communication plans and efforts were strategic. Really, I think the most important part of the exercise was showing them it is okay to justify stepping away from the day-to-day work to focus on the future.
On a personal level, what did you gain from this volunteer experience?
Leave for Change provided me with an opportunity to travel to a country that I wouldn’t have travelled to on my own, but most importantly it made me to test and check my opinions and assumptions about the world, international development and developing countries. My mandate helped me better understand the complexities facing developing countries and specifically Botswana.
An unexpected benefit from this experience was my introduction to the network of former volunteers at the University of Guelph. We all belong to a group with a unique shared experience, despite the vast differences in the countries where we volunteered for our mandates. There are a lot of staff at the university that I simply don’t have the chance to work with. Meeting people from across campus and building a new networks of colleagues has certainly improved my work experience and sense of community.
What advice would you give to other Canadian professionals considering international volunteering?
I had a fantastic experience that was unique, interesting, challenging and full of self growth and I think all past volunteers would say the same. I absolutely recommend others take a professional and personal leap to participate in Uniterra’s Leave for Change program.
Some advice I would share is that that although three weeks sounds like a lifetime it isn’t. You will suddenly find yourself on your last day. Entering any new job and community requires time for integration and you need to be prepared for that aspect of the experience. Also, local partners often want volunteers to condense a fulltime job into three weeks; you really need to be aware of your own capacity and think about the continuation of whatever you develop after you leave.
Future volunteers should also be aware that this experience is not just a time commitment, but an emotional commitment as well. It has the capacity to change how you feel about yourself and the world. It made me question the life I had built and career path I was pursuing in Canada. Be prepared for deep selfreflection and even personal change.
Uniterra is a leading international volunteer cooperation program, jointly implemented by WUSC and CECI. It is funded by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada. Visit the Uniterra website to learn more about corporate volunteering or to see our list of current volunteer opportunities.