Want to know what it might be like to volunteer abroad?
Omprakash volunteers have been posting stories, photos and even videos from their time abroad since 2007. We now have an extensive collection of personal stories from volunteers who've worked with our partners abroad. You can browse through the most recent stories below or use the category selection tool to narrow your search. Alternatively click on the Stories tab for each organization we work with to see specific accounts from a particular organization. Be careful - you might lose a couple hours of your day in here! Happy reading.
Is it over already???print story
August 25, 2011
Volunteering for the Pentok Institute was one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had. Over my five-week engagement, I built relationships with amazing individuals, learned the ins and outs of how NGOs function in China, performed market research to support Pentok's social enterprise initiative, taught English classes on dating, ate in a restaurant that consisted of five yurts overlooking a breathtaking valley, spoke to a beautiful Tibetan girl who dreams of one day becoming a doctor, gave workshops on "Crazy Excel Skills", and fell in love with Xining.
As expected, my original roles and responsibilities shifted a bit as I learned more about Pentok's needs, and Pentok learned more about my skills and interests. As a total logistics freak (everytime I see those UPS ads, my heart skips a beat), I had my work cut out for me. I created no less than 10 strategic improvements (mostly in the form of Excel spreadsheets, including macros, tons of fun formulas, pretty formatting, the works) to help Pentok create and follow policies and procedures: business cards, expense reports, helping fellow volunteer John Hung with the portal for the individual fellowshop donations, an inventory record, a petty cash process, a weekly schedule format, a new PowerPoint template, salary recording, a volunteer exit survey, and a Word document template. Phew!
In addition to the strategic improvements, I also taught courses to the Women's Summer Leadership Program participants. The courses included business applications such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, as well as English, culture, and "computer organization". I've taught business applications before in a professional setting, but it was my first time teaching such skills to people who weren't 100% familiar with computers. Let's just say that even teaching was a learning experience!
One of my original goals was to teach a workshop on leveraging social media, but it became clear right away that this was not possible. John and I were hoping that the fellowship recipients could blog about their progress, and essentially put a face and a story to a name, which would further encourage donations. Well, this idea sounded silly when we found out that most of the village girls did not have running water, let alone a computer and internet. As for Pentok itself, we ran into the issue that most social networking and blogging sites are completely banned within China. Though there are ways around it (via proxy or VPN), Pentok was only interested in pursuing outlets that were 100% legal. Instead, John designed a micro-donation portal directly on Pentok's site, while I researched the most efficient way to get money from one place to another. We're happy with the final product we delivered to Pentok, but now it's up to them to follow through! Once it is ready to go, John and I look forward to sharing the website with our friends and social networks to encourage donations.
Social enterprise is a hot phrase in China right now, especially for NGOs who find it difficult to secure funding. There are only so many grants out there, and what happens when they dry up? Pentok has been interested in exploring sustainability in the form of social enterprise (using business methods to generate revenue for a social cause). What started out as a presentation on social enterprise in China turned into a full-blown initiative for Pentok. During my last week there, we visited Xinghai county town to determine the feasibility of opening a bookstore and cultural center aimed at the large community of children from resettled families. What did we find? The bookstore would probably be too difficult, considering it would be competing against a government-owned shop. But everyone: teachers, students, parents alike, were interested in the cultural center as a means of supplementary education and workshops. I regret not being around longer to help out with this fascinating project, but I hope I gave them a good enough start!
In addition to working for Pentok, I had the opportunity to meet with several other NGOs in Xining, including AmdoCraft and Shem. AmdoCraft is a social enterprise that sells handmade Tibetan crafts. Not only do they pay fair wages to the Tibetan nomads for their craftmaking services and materials, a good amount of the proceeds actually go back to the communities they are serving in the form of education, workshops, healthcare, etc. Shem is a Tibetan women's organization dedicated to empowering women and their communities. Both organizations are doing wonderful things, and I hope they will soon be Omprakash partners!
I also shared information with Omprakash about Harvard Business School's inaugural FIELD Global Immersion Program. This year, they are only partnering with organizations in certain geographic regions, but I hope some of Omprakash's partners can apply!
I know I haven't been the best at updating over my trip, but I have reasons! It has come to my attention that many NGOs in China have a rather precarious existence. Foreign volunteers are also considered suspicious and oftentimes attract far too much attention. I had been given advice, by several people, to lay low and keep my head down, both literally and virtually. In China, you can never be sure who is watching, listening, and taking notes. School starts in less than a week and I'm currently preparing for the big move to Boston (in addition to trying to get over jetlag), but I'll try my best to do some more updating of specific stories and projects over the next couple days!