7 things I wish I'd known about being a GHSP Volunteer
In the blink of an eye, a year is over.
Just yesterday – or one of my yesterdays that was actually more than a few days ago – the second cohort for the Global Health Service Partnership was meeting in Washington, D.C. to prepare for a year of service abroad. We were excited and apprehensive, not knowing what was to lie ahead, and now that year has come to a close. There are a few things now looking back that I wish I had known before leaving the airport and comfort of my home country.
Being a nurse in Tanzania is a challenge in ways those of us from the American system may never understand. My background is emergency and trauma, and I am fortunate to hail from some of the most highly developed academic medical settings available in the United States healthcare system. During my year as a GHSP Volunteer, I acted as a facilitator for many courses including emergency care, medical, surgical and even research and epidemiology. I was lucky to spend many hours in the local regional hospital teaching my students and sometimes learning more about myself than I could ever teach. Coming from a program that believes in sharing experiences for the good of the future, it only seems right to share some of my knowledge to make future Volunteers' experiences as smooth as possible.
So here are seven things I wish I had known:
1) You are stronger than you could have known.
Not every day will be filled with butterflies, rainbows and feelings that justify your move to a developing country. If you ever feel like you want to go home, you are far from alone. This is totally normal. The important part is knowing how to support yourself through it. Having a support system at home is amazing but the reality that is sometimes hard to face is that people at home, as much as they love you, just can't understand. They have probably never lived a life where there isn't running water every day or seen some of the devastation you will be faced with. So in their defense, there is no way for them to understand. But it is important for you to be clear on who does get it. My housemate's daughter gave her a letter when she left the airport and told her not to open it until she reached a moment where she could no longer go on. The day that my housemate decided to open the letter just happened to be a horrible day for me too, and she offered the letter for me as well. I remember taking it into my room and, even though I didn't know her daughter, somehow her words of encouragement and support helped me go on. Ask someone in your life, someone you love more than anything, to write a letter like this for you.
2) It's okay to look and feel good. (Actually, it is super important.)
When you are packing and are constantly told you can only wear dresses and skirts, please keep in mind that this rule is very circumstantial. My site put me living in a decently-sized city where many people wear dresses and skirts; however, more Western-style clothes are also pretty acceptable. After discovering this and realizing that I had only packed skirts and plain shirts, I felt as if something about me was missing. During my visit home for Christmas, I brought back with me the majority of the clothes and shoes I had put into storage and I felt like myself again. Cultural competence and awareness is very important, but so is dressing and caring for yourself in a way that works for you.
3) Remember what is important.
When I was in the midst of the last few weeks at home, I was a mess – not necessarily worrying about my family, but rather thinking about and running around trying to get everything I thought I would need. The reality was that if I didn't have it with me, it was all going to be okay. Most GHSP volunteers live in areas with at least a small expat community, so that means there are lots of expat goodies available. No, you do not need to bring a year's worth of dental floss.
4) Life is easier with your partner.
When I came, I did not have a significant other with me or whom I was leaving behind but rather I was fortunate enough to meet him here. This was different though for many people from our cohort who left a spouse behind to come have this experience. Our program is a little rare in its ability to accommodate a spouse or partner and the recommendation that came very clearly from everyone was make sure they are with you. We experience moments of total joy and total despair and having that person makes each side easier and better to live. The other side is when you return home to them, it is hard for someone who has also lived another year of their life to understand what has been going on during yours. Plus traveling makes a relationship even better and in this part of the world there is more than plenty to go, see and experience.
5) Put it on paper.
I started a blog. It was almost as scary for me to do this as it was leave for Tanzania. I worried because I had all of these expectations around what I felt it should say or represent and if I wrote on the blog, people could see it. There are so many things that I have needed to say and needed to share and whether anyone was reading or not doesn't really matter in the end. What mattered was that I was sharing my story. When we are doing this kind of work, it takes a lot of energy and a big portion of that energy is emotional. Telling our story is so important. The year will go by so quickly that when you look back you won't be able to comprehend how it is over, so write it down. I also think writing out where you are and where you want to be is important, mostly because when you get to that place you want to be in (or some place even better), you want to be able to acknowledge how far you have come. You've done hard work, you deserve all the credit!
6) Bring electronics.
Living in the States, we may have the impression that everyone in the developing world lives in an electricity-free hut but that is not true at all. I still know people in the U.S. who do not have a cellphone, yet I have not met a single person here who doesn't have at least one. The system works much differently but bring electronics. Bring your smartphone and bring your computers. Bring your movies, TV shows, extra hard drives and anything else you want because you will probably thank yourself for doing so. I am writing this on my iPad from a restaurant with Wi-Fi.
7) It's not your fault.
Over the course of this year I undoubtedly fell more times than I stood. We get lots of tips and information in the beginning on how to do it "right," but I will honestly admit that I stumbled at every staircase. You will see things and have experiences that you won't be sure you can get back up from because it is unimaginable that it is real. But that is what is so amazing about being someone who has the courage to start the journey: you can already taste the finish and no one can keep you down. It will be hard. Some days will blow your mind with joy while others will wipe you out in every direction with pain. Just keep moving forward. The world doesn't need to be saved; it just needs to be tenderly cared for by the hand of a nurse or physician, nurtured and allowed to grow from the seed it began as and someday into a highly developed system like the one you know so well.
Good luck on your amazing new journey. Let it change you for the better. Take it all in and remember that you are always doing the best that you can, which is perfect!
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