I was 5,000 km away from home in Delhi, a teenager travelling alone. And yet, surrounded by the kindest strangers one could imagine in Ho Chi Minh City, I felt home. I was in sync with the daily routine of the Vietnamese, the 6 a.m. market chaos, the hundreds of bicycles that leave you unable to cross a street. I had also adjusted to the daily struggle of finding a vegetarian restaurant, the constant rains with a raincoat at hand, eating Pho at an open-air restaurant by myself, feeling content.
It’s not every day that a 19-year-old student of Delhi University can find herself in such a situation – leaving family behind to travel solo to another part of the world, making independent decisions, working as a teacher, staying with strangers, and never feeling lonely because she made friends wherever she went.
All this was made possible because I was a global volunteer with AIESEC. I was in Vietnam for a six-week volunteer project to teach English in two institutions: one, a classroom of 10 children in the age group of eight to 10 years; and the other, an orphanage two hours away from the city where I taught six teenagers and even a 47-year-old who joined in later.
By the end of that journey, I had met people from all over the world, been inspired by their stories, and felt as if I had lived in Ho Chi Minh City all my life. I felt complete and enriched. And this has been only one of my many life-changing experiences at AIESEC.
I enlisted in AIESEC three years ago just after joining college (you have to be at least 18 to become a member). It is the world's largest youth-run non-profit organisation present in 122+ countries and territories. We strive to achieve peace and fulfilment of humankind’s potential by giving practical experiences to the youth, and helping them develop leadership skills by placing them in challenging environments. Part of this happens by facilitating cross-cultural exchanges across the world.
I was a manager in AIESEC’s corporate sector when I went for my exchange programme as a global volunteer. My aim was to experience the product I sold to young people like myself from around the world. And after all my experiences so far, I believe that volunteership is the first step to healthy leadership.
Volunteering teaches you independence, solution-orientation, self-awareness, and the ability to empower others – important qualities for any leader. It’s different from just travelling solo because it allows to you really live in the country, experience its real culture, and mingle among its people, not just tour around and click photos. It helps you break any misconceptions you might have had about the country or its people.
Most importantly, it teaches you to respect humanity over race or religion. It is a life-defining experience for which no words can do enough justice.
Most AIESEC volunteers go to other countries to work towards sustainable development goals. These projects help us develop generosity, character and grit, which are required for success in any field of work. Our goal is a happier, united world where working for the gain of others is gain of our own.
My Vietnam experience changed my world view, helped me build people skills, learn to be independent and develop empathy. There is a shortage of English teachers in the country, and they are very grateful when foreign volunteers arrive to teach them. I stayed in an AIESEC facility with other volunteers, all of whom had jobs in different sectors. I had weekends off to explore the city and its nearby tourist areas.
Hundreds of foreign volunteers similarly come to India each year. AIESEC subsidises the cost of their travel and stay.
What was most fulfilling for me was that I was able to build a strong connect with the orphan children and, till today, two years later, they reach out to me on Facebook and video-call randomly! Travelling two hours one way just to teach six or seven students can also be satisfying when students are so keen on learning and look forward to having you there!
There is a lot of beauty and goodness in the world. By stepping out of our comfort zones and reaching out to help others, we trigger a chain of events that enrich the world and us equally. The world needs more volunteers, people who are willing to go out of their way to help the needs of other people, to support the UN’s sustainable development goals and to make the world a better place.
Youth volunteers are needed now more than ever. Let’s get to work!
Isha Jerath is National VP, AIESEC in Switzerland. She is a BA Economics Honours student at Delhi University and is currently waiting for her final-year examinations to take place