Hannah Simon graduated this past summer from Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in Ohio with a major in International Business and Management, and minors in Entrepreneurship and French. Before starting as a business analyst at an automotive company in her native Cleveland, she took three weeks in September to volunteer at the “Marketing organic agriculture products” project in Vang Vieng, Laos. It was her first time volunteering in a developing country but Hannah had studied abroad in France and Uruguay, and spent a week in Hong Kong representing BGSU at an international business development competition. She plans to pursue a career in international development. Here is her interview.
What motivated you to seek a volunteer opportunity in Vang Vieng?
After I graduated I wanted to spend some time immersing myself in a different culture and doing something that matters in a field that interests me. A few months ago, I saw UBELONG co-founders Cedric and Raul at an event on campus and I decided to go for it.
What was most frustrating or challenging to you during your volunteering placement?
During my stay in Vang Vieng I wanted to connect the farm to microfinance opportunities but it was very difficult to get local organizations to respond to my queries. The same happened with my attempts to get book donations for the education project. The Lao culture is very laid-back and you have to be very proactive and patient. For this project you definitely need to be a self-starter and find your own place.
Not knowing the local language was a problem sometimes. I don’t speak Lao and it was really not a problem for me to do my job, but I really wanted to learn to better connect with people around me. I came up with different ideas to learn some Lao, but you had to be very persistent to learn the language.
From what you observed during your experience, what were the three most important characteristics of a successful international volunteer in Laos?
First, you have to be forward and direct and proactive and also know what you have to do. Have a plan and act on it without being aggressive. My second point is a little counterintuitive but you also need to be compassionate and understanding and avoid being bossy. It’s a difficult balance in Laos: you have to be determined but also sensitive to the culture. You have to move things forward. Nobody is going to do it for you. Third, you have to be open-minded and non-judgmental, particularly regarding food. You have to be friendly and engage the locals.
What kind of impact did you make on the community?
It is hard to see my individual impact in such a short period of time but I believe I made a difference. I am trying to connect the farm to coffee shops in the United States. Getting approval by the USDA for the farm products is a challenge, but I am still working on it. I think I also made a positive contribution to the image that Lao people have of Westerners in Vang Vieng because there are many irresponsible tourists who just go there to party and have no idea about the local problems. I believe that my personal connections to the people at the farm are important too. The friendships I established will help me stay engaged with Laos.
How did the people in the host community perceive the role of international volunteers like you?
When locals learn that we are there to work and help they are very excited. However, not many are aware about the role of international volunteers in Vang Vieng yet. The party culture of the place makes it difficult for some locals to understand what we do. If you teach English they can understand it better, and they are very grateful. Besides teaching English, we are also involved in many other projects and that is something that locals have not seen before.
What did you learn about yourself during your experience?
I think this experience helped me open my eyes to other realities. I am more open-minded and flexible. I learned you have to find solutions that work locally. You cannot transfer ideas directly from the United States. There are other ways of doing things. I also saw myself in a situation where I had to rely on myself more than ever, and I learned how resourceful I am when I am by myself. I learned I am able to adapt to a very different environment and climate. Finally, being so far from home strengthened my friendships back home. I realized whom I was really compelled to talk to and who’s important in my life.
Click on the pictures above to enlarge them. Photos courtesy of Hannah Simon.
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