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When I found my purpose

The other summer I volunteered for a nonprofit association called Child’s Heart in Athens Greece. It was founded in 1983 by parents of children with congenital heart disease – one of the founding members was in fact my superior at the time. The foundation exists till today to help Greek children who battle with congenital heart disease in order to provide them with longer lifespans. So far, the foundation has helped over 2000 children. Child’s Heart covers everything from surgical operations and medical treatments to psychological support but also accommodation and transportation expenses to mention a few.

During my project most of the employees could not communicate in English fluently. My superior’s English was as good as my Greek – not so good I mean. The others knew a bit more but not enough to guide me and that is why I had a supervisor (thank you for all those translated documents). Luckily, he could communicate fluently with me and he had even visited Finland during his exchange years as an exchange student. After all, they all seemed very passionate for the cause they were working for. One thing that really stroke me, and one that still does, was when I heard that one of the employees donated all her wages for the cause of the foundation despite of the difficult economic situation. This is something I still remember today and thinking about it gives me perspective on my life even today. In Finland, or in other countries I believe that similar behaviour is unheard of. Many times, people choose their jobs because it pays the bills, not because it fulfils your purpose.

I am not sure if it is the fact that these children are in desperate need of surgical operations or to see the passion in these people’s eyes even when they were facing difficulties themselves, that made me rethink my whole life purpose. For many years until that moment I had imagined myself to work in an international corporation as a marketing specialist or something similar. Who am I to say that this is not to happen now, it still might. The difference is that I now know what keeps me within an organisation, it is the level of connection with the purpose of the company. I have a need to do something meaningful with my life and with my career. The perfect example is AIESEC where every single one of our members, volunteers or full-time employers are very connected to our purpose. This can be described as the perfect formula for any business or an NGO. I do not think I could survive for long if I did not believe in the cause I was working for. Since the very beginning I have felt connection to our why, peace and fulfilment of humankind’s potential, and understood the purpose of our work within our society. This is solely the reason why I have placed this organisation as my priority even at times when I was offered other opportunities. Now three years later, look at me…

Blogger: Jasmiina

My journey from Finland to the Philippines

Oh boy. That was my first thought when the breeze of warm and humid air hit me while stepping out from the plane in Manila International Airport. Warmness and the level of humidity in the Philippines was something totally new to me, even if my point of departure happened to be the land of million saunas. In fact, it was really like going to one, but with clothes on and coming out after 6 weeks. The delightful part of this sauna analogy was that Filipino people sometimes carried small towels with them and it was also the first thing I bought there. To be honest, after recovering from the initial humidity shock I was just fine and one happy man with my towel.

So, there I was in a new and unfamiliar ground and over more than 8000 kilometers away from home, hearing strange sounds and getting accustomed to new smells that for sure were something new to me. Luckily, I was picked up from the airport by the local AIESEC and walked to the place I would be staying for the upcoming weeks. Now when I think about that time I wish someone would have taken a picture of my confused looks when I was observing my new surroundings. At that time, the contrast between the new current environment and the familiar one just 20 hours before was truly notable. This being my first time in Asia and actually, even outside Europe, I was super nervous, but at the same time really excited about my upcoming journey.

At the flat my host offered us a Filipino treat, which turned out to be “Suman”, a sweet rice cooked/steamed in coconut milk that was wrapped in banana leaves. I certainly represented Finnish culinary well when trying to eat the whole thing, without realizing that the banana leaf was actually used as a wrapping. Well, better do these things straight away, right?

I was in a project, which focused on increasing cultural understanding. The purpose of my project was to protect and showcase local traditions and to promote Philippine culture, ecotourism, and social awareness through travels. Our Explore-team of 13 exchange participants was truly multicultural since there were people from 12 different countries all around the world. In each destination, we were given chance to work with the local communities. These opportunities lead me to have experience in the coastal cleanup, rice harvesting, coffee planting, artisan cocoa manufacturing and even thatching (leaf roof fixing). I believe that by getting our own hands dirty we paid respect to people, their work and their way of life. Even if we couldn’t always find mutual language, many smiles and friendly laughter worked as a bridge between us and our cultures.

I have to say that before (and now after) my 6 weeks’ volunteer in the Philippines I have not witnessed someone having a similar passion for their profession that I saw there. I think that If we would be able to acquire even small portion from that, in general, we would do more than fine.

Finding yourself in a new and unfamiliar ground really forced me to open up and explore my new surroundings without any prejudice. Thanks to this extreme cultural exposure, I became more open-minded and socially aware. The dialogue I had with the Filipinos, local AIESEC people and other volunteers developed my soft skills and shared cultural experiences widened my own perspective.

Little did I know at that time how great adventure was waiting for me when hitting the “Apply now” -button!

Blogger: Niko

The Ship of Theseus

If you replace all the parts of an object is it still the same object or is it a different one? This famed paradox has puzzled philosophers for over 2000 years and to quote Plutarch, “The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”    

Now, my view on this paradox is influenced by my experience of volunteering in an NGO and although it would not be as heroic as the Greek epics, it would surely be an interesting read.

…. as I embarked on my journey to make it to the mystical land of Hellas, I started engaging myself in a soliloquy, comparing every step of my actions with Labours of Hellenic Heroes.

“Answering the riddles of the Sphinx / Interview with the Incoming Global Volunteer team of AIESEC in Piraeus (a city near Athens)”. Like Oedipus, I was presented with questions challenging my wit and my identity but in the end, I was able to impress the beast with my honesty and integrity.

“Collecting drachmas for my quest / Financing my Journey”. I had to find a way to prepare my inventory and gather supplies for the quest and so, I toiled long and hard in the far northern land of the Vikings, sowing seeds in the cold and impenetrable soil which eventually bore the fruits of my labor.

“Encountering the Cerberus / Border Control Authorities”. I was bound to get interrogated by the Royal Guards of Europa, but luckily, I was prepared to face them with royal decrees, sanctioning my entry into Athenai.

“The Flight of Icarus/ Transiting 16 hours in Kiev to save a few Euros”. As I put on my wax wings and flew over the deep blue waters of the Baltic Sea, I burnt my wings as I flew too close to the sun, and spent almost a day in Kievan Rus’ before I could fly again.

Now, before everyone thinks it is ridiculous to compare routine human life activities with that of Greek Heroes, I would play it safe here, and change the perspective where I transfigure myself into the Ship of Theseus rather than Theseus himself.

I was ready to go into work, I knew what I was going to do, I had a fair idea of what I was going to experience and the kind of people I would meet but, the more you assume, the more you start to limit yourself in your comfort zone. Every day has been a new experience for me where I am perceiving previously held notions in a different light. A staunch Atheist by belief, this experience has made me realize the importance of faith and the power of miracles, especially for the people living in the small islands far away from the mainland without proper access to healthcare. I’m learning what it means to be “Hellenes” and why the word “Philotimo” cannot be translated into any other language. Inspired by the pride of the Greeks towards their rich history and culture, I have finally come to terms with my own identity, learning how to respect my roots and be a citizen of the world at the same time. I could see beyond the stereotypes of the Greek people as I could recognize their passions, their dreams, their struggles, and respect every individual for who they are.

Undeniably the country is going through a difficult situation and the people are exasperated with the system, but every day I see the vox populi reverberating with screams of “Eleftheria i Thanatos” from the 1821 revolution, their eyes crying for freedom from the burden of failed economic policies and social reforms. People from Crete, from Sparta, from the mainland and the islands, the young and the old, men and women alike, everybody is ready to hold their ground and fight until the situation improves. The NGO I work for, has seen their century-old building destroyed by an earthquake, donations being affected because of the economic crisis, capital control regulations bringing operations to a standstill, but still the employees continue to put up a smile and work on minimum wages, providing shelter and education for children from underprivileged backgrounds, embracing them regardless of race, colour, religion or nationality, because while the world deliberates over social integration issues of immigrants and refugees, these people decided to act and believe in the power of education, to reduce inequalities and create a better tomorrow for humanity.

The process of going through an Inner journey of contemplation and outer journey of putting myself in an unfamiliar environment has promoted and unprecedented feeling of self-awareness where I am more confident in my ability to make a difference in society. Some might think I’m being cheesy with all the AIESEC terminology, but after almost a year of using them, I now truly understand and appreciate what the Leadership Development Model and all the associated jargon stands for. I have been living in a bubble where metaphorically, my hull is built from years of ignorance, assumptions, and exposure to biased media. I, interpret the “Ship of Theseus” paradox in my own way, where I believe it is inconsequential to debate the identity of the ship, because although this escapade has battered my hull and left me like a shipwreck, I have been able to preserve my core beliefs and at the same time reshape myself with stronger experiences to become the best version of myself.

P.S. – All references and comparisons are made in good humor with the purest of intention, and I hope it does not offend anyone or any group closely associated with them. If you want to debate the outcome of this paradox, I would be interested to know your thoughts in the comments.

Want to start your own journey in Greece? Check this out.

Blogger: Soumyajit

One week before take off

“The weather gets a bit cold at nights so you might need to pack a jacket just in case.”

Everything is relative. So is the fact that today I’m celebrating the “hot” first day of summer in shorter pants in Finland, and in a week I’ll be stepping out of a plane to at least ten degrees warmer summer in Tunisia. Being confused about what to wear there hasn’t been the only question in my mind lately.

After this week I’ll be breaking my world map’s limits. Going outside of Europe has been my dream for a long time and now it’s closer to actually happen than it has ever been. Tunisia is maybe not the most common one to start with but for me it’s only making the country more attempting and I couldn’t be happier now calling this dream reality.

Before knowing that I would go for an AIESEC project I knew that I couldn’t spend a year without leaving the country. This possibility was one of many but it feels exactly the right one. The deadline for leaving my beloved home country behind has given me again a new perspective to enjoy the things I cannot take with me; walking in the forest, smelling the fresh air after the rain, filling my mind with the adventurous light of summer nights, breathing in the quietness. Rye bread is easier to pack, chocolate will most probably melt and the personal space you can just try to carry within yourself in addition to the Nordic excitement.

Travelling and going to places I have never been is something I really do enjoy and this isn’t the first time I’m doing it. However, this will be the first time in many other matters. I’m really curious for example about how will it feel to be living in a country which has a language I know literally nothing about. I’m guessing it will take me back to a time when I couldn’t read. Not even being able to say where the word ends and the other one starts might cause some challenges.

Crossing the European boarders doesn’t only mean the need of starting to use the passport for real but I’m expecting to face a completely different culture over there. What does that kind of a facing mean in practice, I don’t really know because I cannot say I would have experienced an actual culture shock before. Africa doesn’t make a difference in the group of all the continents and carries its own stereotypes. In addition to that, North Africa has its own as well, and that might have weakened some of those many questions I have gotten regarding my destination. Wise men have said that the stereotypes exist for a reason. That’s also why I’m very much looking forward to seeing it all by my own eyes and probably find some reasons behind.

Today riding the bike in the center so alive and full of people again made me praise the summer. It felt so good to see all the happy people and feel the sun. For one day at least it was possible to wander around without a jacket! For my upcoming journey, however, I’ll be packing the jacket – just in case.

Are you ready to start your own journey? Jump here!

Blogger: Jenni

Getting the most out of your gap year

The term ”gap year” is one often met by dismay by parents and terror by newly graduated students ready to advance their academic career only to find they have been unable to nab a spot in the school of their dreams. However, statistics show that more and more young people are choosing to take a gap year between graduating high school and starting university.

One of the most popular gap year activities is volunteering abroad. How can you get the most out of your volunteering experience whilst avoiding making it a cliché rite of passage?

1. Gain valuable work experience

Volunteering abroad is a great way to get some extra credit on your CV. For example, having previous experience teaching English or cultural understanding in Indonesia or Greece can greatly boost your chances of getting a job teaching English or cultures later in life. Volunteering also helps with personal growth and the development of soft skills such as your communication skills. By forcing yourself out of your comfort zone you become more solution oriented and adaptable, both valuable skills in the workplace as well as your personal life.

2. Learn a new culture and a language

Whilst it is probably a given that being able to speak multiple languages makes you more attractive to prospective employers, employers also value people with volunteer experiences abroad because it shows that they are able to adapt to the world around them and work with many different kinds of people. More and more workplaces are multicultural by nature and this is also why communication skills in diverse environments are extremely important. Only few weeks can have a massive difference to your cultural understanding and it makes it easier for you to communicate with people from other backgrounds.

3. Make an impact and be impacted

Though cliché, the thing most volunteers remember from their time abroad is not only the impact they have made on the people they met but also the impact those people have on themselves. Volunteering helps you learn more about yourself and grow as a person so you can start your academic career without having to figure out your passions simultaneously. Many individuals feel that volunteering for few weeks is a useful factor in showcasing where your true passions are and from there many will switch their career directions.

4. Figure out what you REALLY want to do

Young people today are under enormous stress to know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives from a young age. The truth is that many have no idea what they want to study. However, living in this uncertainty is completely normal and this period can be shortened when a young person tries out different activities that might be of interest. Taking a gap year and volunteering abroad may open doors you previously hadn’t even considered, so do not act hastily, go figure out what you want to do!

Find your project abroad here!

Blogger: Camilla

My thoughts before traveling to Indonesia

I am Minni from Oulu Finland, and I just finished my freshman year at the University of Oulu. Since last fall, I have additionally been an active member of this organization called AIESEC and when I was offered an opportunity to go on a volunteer experience abroad this summer through the same organization, I decided to take the brave step to do so and apply for it.

The application process itself was very simple – I sent applications through the online portal to various destination countries and I was contacted quickly by them in order to arrange an interview. Although many of the projects I applied for were highly interesting, one of them had the highest stakes. In this particular project happening in the surroundings of Makassar city, we will be visiting and collaborating with the people of four various local tribes of the island of South Sulawesi. Our goal is to create a business plan in cooperation with them, by evaluating the economic potential of their local small-medium enterprises, and among the already culturally rich team of ours.

The project itself is yet to happen, but the departure is just around the corner. My feelings before leaving are contradictory – on the one hand, I can feel myself being the most thrilled I may have ever been in advance of a trip abroad but because it is not going to be an ordinary tourist vacation, I admit I am feeling a little terrified as well. Already in the interview, I was faced with the realistic expectation setting – I was inquired whether I would be fine with the fact that the local infrastructure will not include tap water and that showering should be handled by ”bucket- technique”. Of course for me as a European and for after most of the times having been taken this for granted, top of the line it raised feelings of worry in me – will I get accustomed to the local proceedings and will I be able to give up the position of privilege for the period of six weeks? However, later, after giving it a thought or two and after going through all the possible worst case scenarios, I concluded that this will probably act as one part that will make this experience extraordinary and will for sure widen my perspectives, for example about the different lifestyles there are elsewhere in the world.

Despite all, I uppermost have this supreme excitement in my mind. I love traveling the most of all, partially for its nature of the tendency to widen the world perspectives, and I enjoy when I get to admire pictures of places I have never visited before. Nonetheless, I have a feeling this one is going to be radically unlike the previous ones of mine – not only exclusively for the anticipation of becoming the grandest adventure of my lifetime yet, but also for the concrete contribution it will have for creating a better place out of this world, little by little.

Find your own project in Indonesia here.

Blogger: Minni

A journey of firsts

I remember being 21 and having reached “it”. We are all expected to get “it” and feel “safe”. The so-called “safe” feeling of having reached a good steady job and being in the final year of a public university. Done. What struck me is that I was feeling all but safe: it frightened me to bits.

“That’s it?”

“Now what?”

“So, I take a few pictures of my diploma and spend the next 35 years doing the same thing?”

What I did next was exactly what the opposite of the expectations decided for me: I quit my university, my job, said goodbye to my family and hopped on a plane to a small town in Russia, having never been abroad before: my own journey of firsts.

For the first time, life happened deprived of my family privileges – basic middle class Latin American male privileges, where bed is tidied for you, food magically appears on the table 3 times a day and your clothes are washed, dried, ironed and they smell like flowers on their own. For the first time, privacy had become a privilege in that cramped living room I shared with a golden retriever almost as big as me. It was also the first-time teaching children a language that was nor mine, nor theirs, and making it the only in common we had.

Meeting people from countries I only had stereotypes about was also a first: I grew up hearing and making images of China and India, but now I had multiple friends from both China and India, and they did not look the same, talk the same, behave the same or such. They were quite unique in their own way and that stroke – for the first time – how I would see China and India from then on: Both would not be just shapes on a map, carried with stereotypes. They would be, from then on, the home of Natalia and Jehan. The place where Smile said it is beautiful. The place where I could go and eat with my hands, because for the first time I did and really enjoyed it, so I had the feeling I would fit right in. The place where Yang’s family is from, that girl who I hugged and spinned and for her it was such a big ride, perhaps also a first – Hugs are such a big part of the routine for us Brazilians. Of course, in the end, they weren’t just from those two places: I had made meaningful connections with people from Russia, Costa Rica, Italy, Taiwan, Armenia, Mozambique and so many after I even lost count.

Those 12 weeks in Russia were some of the most challenging in my life, yet I always refer to them as my “emancipation trip”. The decision to trade an established future for a challenging environment which would push me to become a much better human will always be one of the best decisions I made. And if I am to encourage you, dear reader, to hop onto a journey that will teach things about yourself you never knew, I’d say pick your own journey of firsts, do it and don’t look back. I’m already planning my next one, but Colombia is a first!

The look of excitement in the face of a human for the first time in Red Square.

Eating spicy rice with my hands: a BIG first.

Snoopy, an extremely mischievous dog who I had to pet-sit. There was a hack though: he would obey…. in RUSSIAN. Snoopy became my best Russian language teacher.

My crazy Russian youngsters with whom I keep in touch until this day!

Want to start your own journey abroad? Check this out!

Blogger: Gilberto

Top culture shocks while volunteering in Uganda

From previously living in the U.S. and Europe, living in Uganda feels like I have been transported to another planet. I had wanted to visit Africa since learning in high school about the tedious daily tasks that define African life. My interest in water resources was sparked from my desire to alleviate the burden African women carry: fetching water for the entire family. While in college, I helped organize a campaign with the Ugandan Water Project to construct a rainwater collection system for a school in Uganda in order to lessen the burden of collecting water. During my Master’s, I found myself again in contact with a Ugandan organization, this time while working for the student organization AIESEC. My committee sent multiple students to volunteer in projects that taught small children or carried out Environmental campaigns. The students who participated in these exchanges loved their experiences, and regularly returned to Uganda, the pearl of Africa.

With graduation nearing, and the funding opportunities available to me as a student on the verge of expiring, I chose to complete an AIESEC volunteer internship as a final part of my studies. I felt I had a realistic understanding of what I would experience in Africa from preparing students for their exchanges and from working with Ugandan organizations striving to tackle some of their country’s largest challenges. However, my previous experiences did not prepare me for the culture shock I experienced upon my arrival.

1. I wasn’t prepared for the heat

The sun is strong, and there is no escaping it during the day. I have experienced hot- but there seems to be something even more intense about the sun in Africa and it is not only because I am not from here, even natives joke about having to take multiple showers just to “cool down the brain.”

2. The showers are cold

I knew this ahead of time. What I didn’t fully think through was the complete act of filling a bucket with cold water, then physically lifting it over my head to pour on myself. Each shower in Africa involves self-inflicting pain for a person who is accustomed to the comfort of warm showers. In no way does taking a cold shower compare to simply turning the shower nozzle to cold. Especially not with the ability to turn the temperature back to hot 30 seconds later.

3. Preparing all your own water is a major inconvenience

We use water for so many daily activities, therefore fetching, boiling, and storing water is a major time consuming and laborious daily activity. I now understand why locals become lazy to properly prepare their water and use it so sparingly it becomes unhygienic (7 in 10 people do not wash their hands after using the bathroom).

4. Working is difficult

By the time a person has completed their necessary daily chores and activities before starting work, the day is either almost over, or the heat is so severe you can’t think properly. If you can manage to overcome the heat and stay on schedule to begin working, the Internet will probably be too spotty and slow to access the site, emails, or documents you need anyway. Separating your work activities into ones that need the Internet and do not, then adjusting your schedule to find a café to complete the Internet needed activities becomes another daily chore.

5. Transportation in Uganda is unlike anything else I have ever experienced

Before catching on to the patterns of this organized chaos, I was utterly confused. Large vans are available along the road, and riders listen for their destination or direction being called by the conductors. Bodas are used for short trips, and available at stages, swarming together the way bees swarm their nest- coming and leaving all the time. Conductors and boda drivers are constantly trying to rush you in or on, and it is the job of the rider to remain calm and maintain their own pace. To be honest, transport is quite intimidating coming from Finland, where going anywhere was relaxed, according to a schedule, and required no communication.

For me, these were the biggest shocks upon arrival. Of course, living in a new country requires the proper adjustments and tweaks to your “normal” daily schedule. The best tip I can give for a smooth and successful transition into life in East Africa is to adapt to the lifestyle as best as you can. Instead of trying to force your normal daily habits into your new life, start from scratch and forget everything you used to do. Observe the locals and create a whole new schedule that works best for you. There are many perks to living in Uganda, including the fresh food, the beautiful landscape, and the chaotic-ness of life! Utilize your resources and find creative ways to make the most of your experience.

Want to start your own journey in Uganda? Get started here!

Blogger: Sarah

The original article can be found here.

Iran? No thank you!

Iran is probably not the first destination that comes to mind when planning a trip abroad. Knowing this full well I still decided to go on an AIESEC experience in Tehran for six weeks with the goal of experiencing something new and different, suffer from proper culture shock and break stereotypes, both my own and those of others. I did read beforehand how tourism is a growing industry in Iran as well about how friendly and welcoming the Iranian people are and how travelers are safe as long as they adapt to the local norms of dressing and behavior.

Despite all this (though I refused to admit this to anyone) I was quite nervous when my plane landed in Tehran and it was time to cover my hair with a veil and enter a new country. The images proliferated by the media of soldiers and the unstable Middle-east still haunted me.

After a month in Iran and having learned a lot about the culture and having combatted culture shock, I can tell you three things I have learned.

Hospitality

Family is an essential part of life in Iran and as a guest, you are an honorary member of the family. During my project, I have stayed in many different families and felt welcome in each one of them. Making sure your guest is feeling well and enjoying their star is a task honored deeply by the host. As a foreigner, it’s like you are every Iranian’s honorary guest and their unexpected friendliness surprises you on the daily. I have learned a lot from the way Iranians treat guests that I will be putting into practice myself to welcome my guests.

Diversity

Most Iranians are Persians who speak Farsi, but there are various Arab and Kurd minorities. Every province also has their own traditional costumes, cuisine and accents. The scenery changes from snow-topped mountains to rugged deserts to beaches and urban metropolises. There is no way to see and experience everything in only six weeks, so I am already planning my next trip. I already have many places to stay in Iran.

Contrasts

When speaking with locals I found that we had surprisingly much in common: young people watch the same TV shows and the kindergarteners have Angry Birds and Frozen backpacks. Many things are new, strange or even uncomfortable for Finnish people, whether it be eating while sitting on the floor or the strict rules regarding how girls and boys are to behave. The best thing to do is to wonder about these contrasts aloud and ask locals about the reasons behind them. I have put a lot of conscious energy into understanding local customs and thoughts while simultaneously sharing mine. I haven’t understood everything yet but a month is a short time and this process will surely continue once I’ve returned.

Aside from these three things was is full of delicious and filling food, endless cups of tea, beautiful colours and shapes, the hustle and bustle of big city life and bazaars as well as the idyllic life of the countryside. The countries rich and vibrant history contains many different narratives and is part of what makes this country so fascinating. Did I already mention how much visitors are appreciated in Iran?

I never once had to fear for my safety except for in traffic. However, you get used to the chaotic order in the streets and when crossing the road a local friend will always take you by the arm and guide you through the speeding cars.

Iran isn’t the easiest country to travel in, but it certainly isn’t as hard to travel in as you would assume. My AIESEC project helped me get to know the country; having a ready network to rely on lets you participate in the daily life of locals and helps you meet many kinds of people who will challenge your world view and ideas bout Iran. I also challenged myself through participating in the volunteer project

My experience has shown me that Iran is a beautiful and essential place to visit. If you don’t believe me come and see for yourself!

Do you want to start your experience abroad? Just jump here!

Blogger: Eeva