I’m writing this reflection piece primarily to give the reader a feeling for what it might be like to be a volunteer for SalusWorld. Of course I can only speak about my experience, but hopefully my perspective will provide an extra layer of insight into what you might encounter should you choose to make the leap.
First, a bit about myself. I am young psychologist, having recently completed my post-doctoral year and now currently working as a staff psychologist at a university counseling center on the East Coast of the United States. I have worked and lived abroad as a mental health professional in the past, but I had (previous to this experience) not done so since 2007, when I entered graduate school to earn my doctorate. I might add that I was neither married nor had children in 2007, which I think presents its own set of complications for doing international work. Spending the last 5 years focused on the rigors of family planning and graduate school probably resulted an over-reliance on planfulness and an under-appreciation of risk-taking and improvisation. I admit to some trepidation about being able to return to the international work as I felt a bit out of touch with practical experience in international settings.
Having this trepidation reminded me of why I am drawn to the work. For me, one of the most valuable aspects of international work (or travel for that matter) is that it reminds you of those admirable traits that are often dulled due to underuse in daily professional or personal life (i.e. flexibility, courage, adventurousness, improvisation). It takes some time and effort, but once you submit to the idea that there are few hard and fast rules to living and working cross culturally, then the lack of predictability becomes enjoyable and instructive rather than burdensome and anxiety producing. Personally, it’s not as easy for me to hit the ground running in this regard, but it always makes it easier when one has a working or living environment which encourages this awakening.
As a SalusWorld trainer, I led four 2-day workshops covering a range of mental health topics. I feel strongly that the dynamic nature of the work helped me shake off whatever cobwebs or trepidation I might have had. Complications arose as they always do – most often language barriers and cultural divides that took time and a little bit of improvisational skill to circumvent. The Salus team and workshop participants helped show me the way. They translated when necessary, explained cultural gaps and waited patiently until I found the right words to describe particularly difficult concepts. Tea breaks provided unique opportunities to discuss a broad range of topics, from history and politics to Burmese pop music and the perils of being in Yangon without an umbrella in the rainy season. Over the course of the workshops, I found myself encouraging more discussion and paying less attention to the Powerpoints that I had labored over stateside. In short, every workshop provided an opportunity to explore and improvise a bit more, to push my own capacities as trainer and clinician.
As a psychologist at a college counseling center, I spend the majority of my week providing psychotherapy services, often without much time left for the professional world outside of the center or campus. There is something uniquely rejuvenating about being able to move so dramatically outside of one’s common experience and make contact with novel cultural and intellectual traditions. Working cross-culturally is a mind-bending exercise that, at least for me, naturally inspires reflective thought about the ways my own training and experience can be applied differently, or at least challenged and evaluated through a new lens. As an example, in working with and speaking to college age Burmese youth, I couldn’t help but be struck by the different ways in which fundamental developmental processes are experienced. While such a realization can be had via articles and books, there is little doubt for me that firsthand experience of such cultural differences is a much more impactful vehicle for learning, which makes it all the more likely that I will carry these lessons with me to the work I do in the future.
I feel I should say a few words about living in Myanmar in general. I was aware of the changing socio-political environment in Myanmar before I arrived, but was very much surprised by how rapidly some of the changes were being brought about, whether those were economic, social, or political in nature. I was fortunate enough to be able to discuss these changes with not only the local SalusWorld staff, but also with the diversity of shopowners, taxi drivers, expats, and locals with whom I came in contact. I found these conversations fascinating, as they highlighted the fluid and, at times, uncertain nature of the country’s development which made redundant most of the “up to date”” literature or guidebooks that I had consulted before departing. Being on the ground and witnessing these changes in real time was, for me, a profoundly unique, exciting, and humbling experience. And it also underscored for me one of the most rewarding parts of volunteer work in international settings – the privilege to be witness to (and at times a participant along with) communities and populations that are exploring new ways of coping with and managing massive societal change. You can’t help but feel stimulated and provoked by such an experience, and I view it as a vital piece of being a more dynamic and inspired professional when I return to the work I do at home.
In general, I found the experience with SalusWorld to be invigorating and challenging as well as especially valuable to my development as a clinician in both international and domestic settings. I have little doubt that other volunteers share these same thoughts or feelings. Many thanks to all the SalusWorld staff for making my experience a memorable one. Best of luck to those who choose to volunteer or work with SalusWorld in the future.