Former European Volunteer Alberto reflects on the huge impact European Solidarity Corps has had on his life in an honest reflection on the ups and downs of the experience, but most importantly on how it has literally widened his horizons.
I joined this program a few years back, after turning 23. At that time, I had never lived by myself before (never mind abroad) and my level of English was, frankly, quite poor. Nevertheless, I felt brave, I was hungry for adventures, and I desperately wanted a life challenge after 5 years going to university and living at my parents’.
When I decided to accept an offer to become a volunteer and work full-time at North Down YMCA in Bangor, Northern Ireland, I didn’t know the challenges that awaited me, how intensely I was going to grow, and how massively the course of my life was about to change.
The first few months of my volunteering experience were not easy. I felt scared from the moment I boarded the plane that took me to Belfast. As soon as I arrived, I started having conflicts and misunderstandings with my only flatmate, another European volunteer from a different country, which made me feel quite terrible. After a few weeks living there, I started feeling lonely and isolated, for I didn’t have any real friends and, what’s worse, I felt I could not even imagine making any real friends, for my ability to communicate in English was just so bad. The thing that bothered me the most was the fact that I felt completely incapable of supporting young people and families like I was meant to. I had worked with children and teenagers for four years in Spain and I was very confident at it, but how to connect with young people and families if you can’t even fully understand what they say? On top of that, the winter was cold and wet in Northern Ireland, the Wi-Fi stopped working and I was going through an identity crisis: I wasn’t any longer the confident and funny young man I was back in Madrid, but a misfit, a lonely outsider going through cultural shock.
Luckily, I never gave up and at the end of winter things started to get better. Many of the people I had met ended up becoming real friends, my English was improving and so was my confidence. I felt very happy about the fact that I was developing solid relationships with so many, from the young people and families I was working with to my co-workers, other European volunteers and many others from the local community.
In fact, I started becoming kind of famous in that town, so much so that it came to a point in which I could not walk to the supermarket 5 minutes away from my house without bumping into someone greeting me, saying something like “Hi Alberthou”, pronouncing my name in such a particular way. At the end of the year, 25 people attended my Birthday party, and I can say that this was the most international, fun and intergenerational Birthday I have ever had, and symbolised how much I had integrated into the local community.
During my year as a European volunteer I studied English every day, read books about the history and culture of Northern Ireland, ran activities for young people and families, travelled on my own on the weekends, helped the volunteers at a local church to paint the houses of families going through tough times, joined an art club with elderly people, went to a history course at the local library and joined Irish dance lessons in Belfast.
During that time I took advantage of every opportunity to learn about the local culture and this is why I went out to listen to live music at every opportunity, visited museums all around, went to Donegal to learn Gaelic, went camping to Rathlin island with a group of volunteers and to Dublin with a group of elderly people to learn about the shared history of Ireland and Northern Ireland. I made unexpected friendships all around, for example I got close to Dave, an 80-year-old retired soldier who told me his stories of when he served in Canada and felt lonely there as a foreigner. I also met a few times Verona and Marty, a really lovely couple of retired schoolteachers from Coleraine that I first met on my first flight to Northern Ireland. Finally, I shared all I had learnt about Northern Ireland with every friend and family member who came visiting, and showed them all around this small wee country, which they all loved like me (I don’t know how many times I visited the magnificent Giant’s Causeway or the Bushmills distillery but I never got tired of going).
During that time, I made a positive contribution to the lives of the people I worked with, for I truly helped in every way I could. Nevertheless, that year was also about myself, and I can say that I grew a great deal. This was the year in which I feel I stopped being a child and became a man, the first step of my career, the year in which my horizons widened and the year in which I left my country to never come back.
From Northern Ireland I moved to England, where I qualified as a teacher, and from there to Vietnam, where I have lived for 2 years. When I became a volunteer 6 years ago, I could not speak English properly, now I teach IT in English at an international primary school in Vietnam, how incredible is this? I know none of this would have been possible if I hadn’t accepted that offer made by Mary from the Bryson Group to work full time at North Down YMCA in Bangor as a European volunteer.
So thank you so much for everything, and see you soon!
PS. If you want to see what my life is like in Vietnam, look for me on YouTube - I am Aventuras con Alberto (my videos are in Spanish, but some have subtitles in English!).
Youth story by Alberto Ramos Agrela, submitted via Bryson Charitable Group, Eurodesk UK Partner.
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