The undiscovered country. Learning through experience during Volunteering Activities Abroad

The undiscovered Country [Paul Gilmore via]

Image: Paul Gilmore via

European Programmes provide various non-formal learning experience: youth exchanges, youth initiatives and volunteering activities abroad. These activities are based on learning through experience, which gives young people an opportunity to develop competences and one’s own personality. A perfect preparation for an unknown future.

An unknown future – How to prepare best for it?

In the field of Non-Formal Education you may find two different answers to this question: through the development of competences (knowledge, skills and attitudes) and the development of one’s own personality. Both reflect two sides of the same coin and yet point in very different directions when it comes down to working with young people.

The call for developing competences, or better key competences, comes from an analysis of Europe’s challenges: an unacceptably high rate of youth unemployment, insufficient number of graduates in higher education, a spreading lack of reading and writing abilities and an increasing number of young people who are not in employment, education or training (compare the most current review of the situation of young people in the European Union, EU Youth Report, 19.09.2012). It seems that the old promise that school education paired with job education/studies result in competences that guarantee employability cannot be kept any more. On the other hand, the new promise that life-long learning together with learning mobility provide key competences that raise the employability of young people has not proved itself yet.

Developing competences – if not reduced to knowledge and skills – is an important part of one’s own personal growth and development. Still, acquiring and broadening competences does not reach the full understanding of personal development. Personal development is more like a journey of discovery. A journey that can be compared to Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Of all her encounters, it is the one with the caterpillar which points directly towards Alice’s personal development quest: “Who are you?”, he ask Alice, to which she responded: “It’s complicated.“

Personal development is so much more than developing a set of competences: it includes finding oneself, one’s own place in the world, a direction, a purpose, a mission, etc. To the caterpillar’s question we can add those that Kieślowski asked his interview partners in Talking heads (1980): Who are you? What is important for you? What do you want for the future?

Krzysztof Kieslowski – Gadające głowy aka Talking Heads (1980)

Volunteering Abroad – Learning from the unknown…

If the future is unknown, which competences are needed to deal with the new and the unknown? When we asked volunteers from an On-Arrival Training (in November 2010, Poland) this question and they came up with the following skills and attitudes:

  • be realistic
  • be self-confident
  • be open / be open-minded
  • use the new situations and combine them with your ideas
  • be prepared to face new situations
  • take care of your own values (“keep your way“)
  • make experience => learn and draw conclusions from it => gain knowledge and wisdom
  • be and think positive
  • relax and accept things
  • adapt
  • be active / pro-active / engage (don’t wait)
  • take risks
  • look for/discover new options/possibilities/opportunities
  • create new opportunities
  • be flexible

Being avolunteer means a great chance to come across a lot of the above mentioned points. Therefore we believe that:

Volunteering abroad gives young people the opportunity
to be confronted with the unknown
and make valuable learning experiences.

The “unknown“ are various encounters with other people in an intercultural context. The new volunteers find themselves in an unknown culture, an unfamiliar hosting organisation and a challenging working project. In this environment they are newbies who have to find their own role and tasks, tackle language difficulties, co-operate within an intercultural team, manage their everyday life, etc.

These challenges are all part of a normal and natural process of acculturation. This process starts with a very positive and enthusiastic stage (“Honeymoon”), followed by a phase of disorientation (“Culture shock”). Step by step, the person discovers more and more about the other and also his/her own culture, learns and adapts to his/her cultural environment (“Adaptation”), before s/he gains enough intercultural competence to make the most of the two cultures and live and work happily abroad (“Stabilisation”).

This transition is similar to any process of adaptation to a new environment and new circumstances. In a wider sense, the process of acculturation can be understood as a process of change, transition or transformation which needs to be managed by young people.

What’s so special about this process? Most volunteers are in various change processes at the same time: the process of acculturation, the process of finding and defining one’s own understanding of the role as a volunteer, the process of finding and carrying out a meaningful task, the process of orientation towards education and a future career, the transition from youth to adulthood, etc. All these changes (and many others) are a real challenge for volunteers during their service abroad, being often connected with strong emotions: anxiety, happiness, fear, threat, guilt and/or anger. In order to move on, the volunteer has to deal with these emotions, accept the change and identify the issues related to them. To resolve these issues, the volunteers can take advantage of their own resources, but they often need the help of others: volunteers, facilitators/trainers, mentors, etc., as one cannot really fully rely only on family and friends who are abroad.

Volunteering abroad – Non-formal learning opportunities

EU Solidarity Corps: Learning through experience | #voluntarywork #EUSolidarityCorps Click To Tweet Despite – or often just because of – all these changes and instabilities – young people can make valuable learning experiences during their voluntary service abroad. These learning experiences are made within a structured pedagogical frame of non-formal and informal learning. The way how volunteering activities within Erasmus+ and the European Solidarity Corps is organised supports the idea that not only the volunteer adapts to their new environment, but also the hosting organisation adapts to the needs of the volunteer. Volunteering activities, as a non-formal programme, offers a curriculum that is not standardised but is (or can be) adapted to the individual.

In this sense, young people can (re-)discover the value of learning. They learn effectively …

… because they leave their comfort zone of the environment they were used to. This encourages young people to stretch themselves: to try out new things, discover new possibilities, carry out own ideas, risk something, find new ways of problem-solving, etc. They make valuable experiences and expand their learning. (“Model of learning zones” described in T-Kit No 6. Training Essentials, p.67-68)

… because they learn through experience which has a great impact on their future path. It is essential to reflect on the experience made. To make use of one’s own experiences and be able to apply them actively requires conceptualisation of the insights gained from the reflection (“learning cycle” or “model of experiential learning” by David Kolb, 1984).

… because their learning is self-initiated and self-directed. Learning within European Youth Programmes like the European Solidarity Corps follows the philosophy of self-directed learning where individuals take their learning into their own hands: young people join this learning process voluntarily. They estimate their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select and implement methods and tools for learning and assess and evaluate their learning outcomes (Malcolm S. Knowles, 1975).

Confronting the “unknown“ – How to support volunteers?

Being confronted with the unknown is sometimes a difficult and hard experience. European Voluntary Service (like other international voluntary services) offers a safe environment for learning because of its support system:
Self-directed learning: When learning and change lies in one’s own hands, no one can be overwhelmed by events. There might be difficulties and strong emotions to deal with, but the volunteers are in charge of this process.
Peer support: Volunteers work and live together with other volunteers or build their own support network with other volunteers during training and seminar events.

  • Mentoring: Volunteers are supported by members from their hosting organisation.
  • Training cycle: Together with others, volunteers can reflect on their experience, better understand themselves, their role in the project, living and working in an unknown culture. They can support one another, gather new energy, create new ideas for their project and plan next steps. They review their learning and change process and prepare themselves for going back home creating steps into the future.
  • Quality standards for organisations and projects: During the process of accreditation, organisations are introduced to how to create for the volunteer a work project ensuring supportive conditions for learning and change.
  • Youthpass process and certificate: The Youthpass process offers tools to review, reflect and self-assess the learning process and learning outcomes. The Youthpass certificate documents the development of competences and presents them in a document which can be more easily recognised by people not involved in International Youth Work.

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Volunteering abroad – Effects of learning mobility experience

Volunteering activities, first of all, affects the local environment and the organisations through the work carried out by volunteers. Their service is essential for acquiring and deepening competences, as well as for personal growth and development. Without this motor, the effects of volunteering on young people are very limited.

What is the impact of volunteering, learning and change on young people?

The volunteers gain competences needed for mobility (either for learning or work purposes) and return home more mature, more self-confident and, potentially, more active citizens.
European Union, Mobility of young volunteers across Europe, p.xiii

However, most studies cover only the short-term impact of volunteering. They focus more on competences and do not elaborate on the development of one’s own personality. Prof. Dr. Alexander Thomas published in 2006 his findings about long-term effects of volunteering. Using interviews and questionnaires, his team interviewed people 10 years after their participation in international youth exchange projects. Despite referring to short-term events, the outcomes are of interest as the findings cover both the development of competences as well as the impact on the individual’s further biography.

Among the personality effects or competences developed as a result of the international experience there are:

  • Self-centred properties and competences (63%)
  • Intercultural learning (62%)
  • (enhancing language skills and general interest in learning) Foreign languages (53%)
  • Social competence (52%)
  • Openness, flexibility, composure (51%)
  • Self-knowledge/self-image (40%)

The first and the last one refer especially to personal development: Self-centred properties and competences include self-esteem, independence, self-assurance, self-confidence, self-efficacy, whereas self-knowledge/self-image refers to self-reflection and analysis of one’s self-image, which is related to the ability to assess oneself more accurately.

The category of “openness, flexibility, composure” refers to a higher openness towards new and unknown situations and individuals, and the ability to react with more composure and flexibility in unfamiliar situations.

Looking at the individual’s further life and development, the research group identified four types of different impacts the exchange experience had (compare: Thomas, A. et. al. 2006, p.4):

  • Mosaic (51%): The exchange experience fit into the overall biography like a piece in a mosaic. Together with other important events in life, it contributes and builds up the individual’s personality.
  • Domino (31%): Young people experience the exchange event as a trigger for a chain of constructive events and activities in his/her future. The exchange experience “is considered as the initial spark or impulse for the individual’s further development.” (Thomas, A. et. al. 2006, p.4)
  • Nice-to-have (12 %): The exchange did not have a significant impact on the future development. Even if it was experienced as a pleasant, valuable and enriching time, it did not lead to any impulses for change.
  • Turning point (7%): The experience marked a turning point in the individual’s biography. It is seen as a major change in life or as a starting point – causing the individual’s life to take another course.

(Thomas, A. et. al. 2006, p.4)

Reviewing these findings, it is very interesting that in only 12% of the former participants their experience did not leave a major impact on their further biography. All the others state that it had valuable and memorable effect on their own personal development. And these effects were triggered by events that were between two and four weeks long. What effects would you expect interviewing volunteers of European Youth Programmes 10 years after their service?

Volunteering abroad – Searching for the unknown…

The undiscovered country. Learning through experience during Volunteering Activities Abroad

Image: Dan Gribbin via

Volunteering: Learning and Growing | #voluntarywork #EUSolidarityCorps Click To Tweet It is obvious that the learning experience made during volunteering activities abroad will be quite different for each individual. Consequently, the possibility to plan the impact of volunteering is quite limited. What can be done is to create flexible and supportive conditions for each person, allowing and encouraging them to discover and follow their own individual needs for learning and growing.

Anyone travelling in the search for the unknown without really expecting it will never be disappointed. I don’t mean the big events, quite the opposite – a look, a phrase, an image, an idea, that shifts something in your inner wheels, that later, perhaps much later, when something happens or has become clear, shapes your life forever.
Cees Nooteboom (Der rote Regen, p. 189, translation by M.Kimmig)

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Future – the undiscovered country |

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European Comission (2012): EU Youth Report. Status of the situation of young people in the European Union; SWD(2012) 257 final, Brussels 19.09.2012
Thomas, A., Chang, C. & Abt, H. (2006): Ergebnisse, die verändern. Langzeitwirkungen der Teilnahme an internationalen Jugendbegegnungen [Outcomes, which make a difference. Long-term effects of participating in international youth encounters]. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
Thomas, A. et. al.: Which are the long-term personality effects of participating in international youth exchange? Summary, 2006, p.4

Source: This blog post is an upated version of the article "The undiscovered country. Learning through experience during European Voluntary Service (EVS)", published in: Bielska, Agnieszka, Kimmig, Michael and Miksiewicz, Melania (eds): The undiscovered country. Future, Personal development and Managing change in the context of EVS trainings; Foundation for the Development of the Education System (FRSE) | National Agency of the Youth in Action Programme, Warsaw 2013
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BlogPost:European Solidarity Corps
Publication (free eBook):The undiscovered country. Future, Personal development and Managing change

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