- Abigail Ni Mhaolchatha Ní Chonaill
"BiondekBuehne": My Year Volunteering in Austria
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
Abigail Ni Mhaolchatha Ní Chonaill makes the case for choosing to volunteer in the European Solidarity Corps over a developing country
It’s December 2018 BC (Before Covid), and I have decided that after three months of Leaving Cert and CAO talk, I’ve had enough. I email an Austrian youth theatre “BiondekBuehne” that I had worked with the summer prior and asked them if they had chosen any volunteers for the 2019/20 school year. After a few replies, back and forth, it was settled. I contacted my youth theatre, filed my applications and exactly a year later I am residing in a small town called Baden, being blessed by white snow and sipping on my Glühwein.
A European Solidarity Corps is a European initiative that allows young people across Europe to volunteer abroad working on a variety of projects that bring young people (18-30 year olds) together to build a more inclusive society. Each ESC project supports vulnerable people and responds to societal challenges. As fancy as that copy and paste sounds, it can be summarised as a between six and fourteen month volunteer placement with free amenities, such as food, accommodation, training, language classes, and an opportunity to travel the continent without any of your usual concerns.
It’s a lot to take in. I can certainly feel a few raised eyebrows questioning, “how is this even possible?”, but it absolutely is. At eighteen, it was challenging to tackle the whole independent, free nature of it all, but I left Ireland knowing that in that moment in life, Austria was the best option for me. I spent the next thirteen months assisting music, dance, theatre and film making classes with some of the brightest and most talented young people in Europe.
Working abroad in a foreign language is insanely daunting, especially as I was assisting workshops for young people aged up to seventeen (teenagers who were literally a few months younger than me). One thing I noticed is that informal learning is highly encouraged amongst ESC projects, and the advantage to this was that I could engage in peer to peer learning. There are many benefits to acknowledging different cultural learning elements, and peer to peer learning is especially valuable in volunteering circumstances.
Volunteering with children and teenagers is quite a different dynamic to “working” with them, because no clear authoritative roles were established from the beginning, which is difficult for young people to navigate. It took me a while to gain the trust of the kids in the youth theatre, and that was something I learned to respect. This created all sorts of different dynamics, but I found it to be an immensely beneficial task for them to establish my role in their classes. Some were keen on being friends with me, others were happy to just let me sit in the back and observe, and others felt the need to include me in every single assignment that was allocated to them. The children were way more open to cultural exploration as they were given the opportunity to make assumptions about me. I certainly felt a responsibility to let the questions flow, because at the end of the day this situation was new to them, and children should not be prosecuted for exploring. I think it is especially important to keep in mind that they saw me as the “foreigner”, an identity that was relatively new to all of us. And even though I never introduced myself with a self-segregating tone or manner, it is something that everybody had pinned on me, due to my lack of German and familiarity with their culture. That is why my volunteer status was vital in these groups, because it strengthened the informal learning methods and inspired questions surrounding my cultural background and ideas.
Not only was it crucial to incentivise cultural curiosity through equal standing points, but to reinforce that through language. With children it is very easy to use condescending and patronising tones, due to the authoritative roles that are established in classroom settings, but as seen in the complexities behind privileged saviourship, the condescending manner of one's actions determines how well intended they actually are. We rely heavily on the use of academic articulation to strengthen any predetermined commanding roles people are forced to respect, but that only works in settings of formal learning, an environment that does not bode well in volunteerism. Volunteering in another language encourages the use/focus of other expressive communicative methods, such as body communication, facial expressions, and gesture. Body language is more powerful than any other language in the world. It creates a peer to peer learning dynamic, a message received by young people that they are not the only ones learning. To put this in philosophical terms, I found that volunteering with these young people is a lot like a spiritual journey. The attitude of “we are taking this adventure together, and you’re not alone on this path” is adopted. Again, utilising one’s own personal weaknesses (i.e. a lack of verbal communicative abilities) can prove exceptionally beneficial to improve the willingness to learn. Not only is it equally as fulfilling for everybody but a mutual respect for exploring and developing skills evolves. This informality lessens the condescending idea of wanting to save the “less fortunate”. We create these barriers between upper and lower class in everyday life, from educational hierarchies, to micro aggressive behaviour in volunteerism.
If there is one piece of advice I can give to volunteer-thirsty young people, it is this:
Find a European Project to partake in before you go trying to solve the poverty crises in underdeveloped countries.
I suggest you find a European Solidarity Corps project that suits you, and let me detail why:
volunteering does not necessarily mean solving a global crisis. Volunteering is about offering your skills and desires (whether informally or formally) in a means that can benefit communities. The purpose of volunteering is giving up a part of you to people who can benefit from it. If your talents and desires consist of low waste living and environmental work, volunteer in places or countries that can exploit those passions. Just because my ESC took place in a performative setting does not mean that all ESC projects are artistically based. Many of my friends took part in feminist-based projects, working in female health care centres and domestic violence non-governmental organisations across Austria. Many worked in environmental conservation sites, some working in intellectual and physical disability services. Most volunteers in Vienna were assistants in Kindergartens (which is great work experience for those early childcare students!). Even if you just want to live in the snowy mountains of Tyrol or volunteer by a beach in Spain for a year, there are location-based projects for you to explore as well.
Versatility comes with personal development, and that can be accessed through European volunteering; moving from Ireland to Austria was a beneficial contribution to my own personal development. The independent living situation and decisions I had to make for myself aided in the expansion of my self-awareness. I gained the confidence and self-belief to put forward ideas in working environments. My leadership skills flourished, as well as now being able to analyse what motivates myself and others in formal, non-formal, and informal learning circumstances. Controlled spaces for the beginning of self-development is necessary — all young people are only scraping the surface of self-development from the age of 18/19, and some people don’t even begin to explore it until their thirties!. There are patronising themes to be recognised from the thought of personal development through aid in global crises. That type of volunteering is not for you to feel good or learn from; it is for others to be able to live a life with access to all basic human rights. It is too serious a situation to use it as a medium to sooth your white guilt.
European Volunteering is a great foundation to begin recognising aspects of behaviour one may have picked up from white saviour complexes. On these volunteer opportunities you will find yourself asking “Would I do what I’m doing here with people in underdeveloped communities?”.
“Is picking up children, taking photos with them and posting them on Instagram a weird thing to do in white societies?”.
Sure, a massive part of my ESC journey was documenting the work I do, which mainly was with children, but was I doing it for business or for pleasure?
“If I swapped the context, would this be classed as normal or a borderline child protection issue?”. “Am I helping people because I want to make their life easier, or am I actually exploiting my white privilege?”.
These are just honest questions that begin to arise and will hopefully hone your well-intended actions whilst volunteering in Europe. And the plus side to all of this is that it is a safe, controlled environment for you to explore!
Not only does European volunteering benefit you in terms of international career paths, but it opens you up to once in a lifetime opportunities. My closest ESC friendships are those with people from Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Romania, Germany, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, to just name a few. I have places to stay, people to collaborate on future EU projects with and I have gained such an intense insight into the lives of different ethnic groups and cultures.
An ESC offers you a second life. Home is where the heart is, and your heart will long to be back in your ESC country. Your ESC residency will stay with you forever. For example, my friend trained with a basketball team over in Salzburg, whilst doing his ESC in a youth club. When his year long placement was coming to an end, he was offered a spot on the team to train professionally with Salzburg BB, and has now moved permanently to Salzburg at only 19. My Romanian friend Andreea stayed on in Dornbirn to attend University because she fell in love with the city she spent her year in. Some people leave behind great memories to look back on, and others are simply not ready to stop creating them. Your ESC continues to live throughout your life, whether that be through the skills you gained or the experiences you had. I fell in love, found my favourite cocktail bar, moved apartments, found solace in €1 Radler and lived amongst strict government lockdown restrictions (leaving me stranded in Austria for a little while, which was kind of scary, but very educational!). It’s a moment in life where you get to contribute to society and find out who you are. You get to try life as a local, and gain different perspectives on culture, politics and social class.
All my knowledge on culture and learning methodologies came from 13 months of pure risk taking. I cannot stress enough how important it is to create a more united Europe. A united Europe can be created for young people BY young people. We are a conscious generation of talented, politically aware change makers, and there are millions of other similar minds for you to meet, nourish, get to know and learn from. Ask yourself what is more impactful: one person volunteering to end a poverty/health crisis’ or one whole united continent collaborating and working together to bring peace and equality to other nations?
Make your mark on the future Europe and get us to where we need to be to successfully help others.