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Ellie Klein from Spain reflects on how volunteerism abroad, parallels and diverges from volunteerism in the U.S.


~October 2011~

Identity crisis: Am I a volunteer?

stone fence


One year and 30 days ago I started my term as an AmeriCorps volunteer. Today I find myself in a small city in southern Spain about to begin a position with a remarkably similar job description. On Monday, I start my term as a Language and Culture assistant in a local public school here in Adra, Spain. Like with AmeriCorps, I will be working with children of all ages and backgrounds – many who live in poverty as the region of Almeria (and recently in other regions of Spain) lacks a stable economy. My goal here will be to help my students learn English in order to better survive in the treacherous job market following their graduation. I will work with them four days a week for roughly eight months. The government will pay me for my time.

On paper these two positions are the same aside from their geographic location, but they feel, and at their core they probably are, very different. Here I am not considered a “volunteer” in part since I am working less and getting paid more. Here, I lack a supervisor who drives their volunteers towards a clear and concise goal. Within my teach-in-Spain program, among the other Language and Culture assistants, and within the school itself, there appears to be all sorts of long term goals and group think, but none of them are as concisely focused on helping children believe in themselves in order to succeed – or not outright, or at least not at the outset.

So, what defines a volunteer? Is it simply someone who is willingly to work for less than the demands of their job? Is it someone making a difference in a community regardless of the compensation? Or is it someone who can efficiently define problems and create solutions? All come with caveats; many people can say they do not get paid enough for what they do; many make a positive difference in their community while still raking in enough for family vacations and SUVs; virtually everyone would like to believe they tackle challenging problems at work. Is there one characteristic that whole-heartedly defines a volunteer or is it more of a mindset, a spirit and a personality, than an actual job description?

Through this column over the next eight months I will try to more accurately define volunteerism as a whole. I will conduct interviews, do research and use my own experience to grasp how volunteerism abroad, parallels and diverges from volunteerism in the U.S. Only time will tell as god only knows what I will learn working on the shores of the Mediterranean.

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pictureEllie Klein graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA in May of 2010 with a degree in Media Studies. Last year she served with the Federal Way Public Schools AmeriCorps team as a tutor at a local high school and volunteer at the Westway After School Program. She is currently in Andalusia, the southern region of Spain, to teach English at a high school in the Mediterranean coastal town of Adra.


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