THE BLOG

In International Volunteerism, Structure Pays

01/19/2011 02:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

More than 10 years ago, I struck out on my own to spend a semester living and working in Salvador, Brazil -- an experience that did more to shape my sense of self, and role in the world, than any before or since.

I arrived with a backpack and a healthy dose of youthful idealism. I spoke no Portuguese, knew no one, and had no idea how I would be spending my days. All I knew was that I wanted to learn about issues relating to children, poverty and urbanization in a country with the greatest social and economic inequities in the world.

Back then, I wanted to be independent, and avoided anything that smacked of an organized "program". So what I am doing leading one today?

The answer is simple: as transformative as my time in Salvador was -- from the early days finding my footing to the four months volunteering at a small NGO for street children -- it was also, to use the local term, a bona fide bagunçaço -- a complete mess. I craved the deep immersion that so many structured programs seemed to preclude, but without any context to help me process my experience, I often felt adrift. The ends were loose, the lessons were tentative, and the support I needed interpret my observations and experiences was lacking. I went back to college with renewed purpose to complete my studies, but also to find a way to provide long term, full immersion opportunities for other people like me -- without the bagunçaço.

Fast forward to the present: I now lead a gap year program called Global Citizen Year that, like other programs of its kind, fuses the best of independent experiential learning with a structure that supports ongoing inquiry and reflection.

It starts with training. At Global Citizen Year, Fellows attend a pre-departure "boot camp" led by experts in education, business, entrepreneurship, and international development, followed by an in-country orientation that includes language and cultural immersion. But it doesn't end there. We envision the entire program as an ongoing training with monthly seminars to help our Fellows contextualize their field learning, and a re-entry program upon return to smooth the transition back home and into college.

During their time abroad, our Fellows are guided by exceptional in-country staff who combine the cultural and linguistic fluencies to navigate a foreign terrain with the patience, intuition, and empathy to effectively mentor each Fellow over the course of his/her individual journey. Fellows live with caring host families who integrate them not only into the household, but also into the wider community, while nudging them closer and closer to language fluency.

Beyond this, our Fellows join the ranks of a growing national corps who've walked the same road, and are connected for life through the intensity of the shared experience.

Last week, I returned to Salvador where my own journey began over a decade ago to visit our Global Citizen Year program in the region. The contrast from my own experience could hardly have been more striking: where I rented a one-bedroom apartment and scoured the city for volunteer opportunities, our Fellows are living with gifted community leaders, activists, and even rockstars. They're working alongside the landless poor, studying capoeira in the favelas, harvesting okra in family fields, and monitoring the implementation of efficient cookstoves in rural homes. They're coming together often to share and reflect, and calling on each other for support along the way.

In short, they are engaged in something far greater than my own independent experience in Salvador could have ever enabled. With the right blend of structure and independence, these Fellows are developing skills and insights beyond what even they had imagined. Perhaps most significantly, they are becoming part of something far bigger than themselves: a new educational paradigm that will change the way Americans engage in the world beyond our borders -- bagunçaços and all.