THE BLOG
08/21/2014 06:28 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2014

Don't Judge a Millennial By Her Cover

My new favorite website is http://autism-tj.weebly.com/. It belongs to IRODA, Tajikistan's only center for autism. The main page has a gallery of 10 portraits, from a girl with pompadourish big hair who smiles defiantly to a teacher's aide gently brushing noses with a grinning boy. The website doesn't have pyrotechnics, but the photos pull you in, and the organization's mission and programs are clear.

Still, what's the big deal?

This website was put together by Britta Nippert and Okxana Cordova-Hoyos, undergraduate students from New Jersey. They volunteered this summer at IRODA, creating this website, researching grant opportunities and playing with the children.

IRODA was founded by a group of parents who seek an alternative to institutionalization for their children. While IRODA relies on foreign funding support, they did not have a website in Tajik or Russian, much less English until a few weeks ago. By creating a basic yet attractive site, Britta and Okxana filled a gap and met a priority identified by IRODA's leadership. At the same time, for a community in Dushanbe that has little or no direct interaction with America, Britta and Okxana represented an America that reached beyond its borders in a compassionate and useful way.

As Lola Nassriddinov, IRODA's Director, remarked, "It is amazing that people from so far could come and integrate themselves with the children. They have such a good connection with the kids, acting like they had known them for years since their first day. All of the staff asks, 'Where can we find volunteers like this is Tajikistan?'"

Britta and Okxana are indeed special, but their volunteer service is not unique. Over the last couple of years, more than 40 undergraduate and graduate students have volunteered with us through our summer service internship program in four different countries.

Millennials get a bad rap. Studies show that they don't vote in high enough numbers compared to other age groups and that they don't volunteer as much as my fellow Generation Xers. I can't account for national trends, but on an anecdotal level, it has been fascinating to watch millennials become some of America's best 'unofficial ambassadors.'

Three years ago, when we launched this initiative, my idea was (and remains) to increase the number of Americans who volunteer for a week to a year in the Muslim World and then share that experience through blog posts and community presentations. To date, the vast majority of our unofficial ambassadors have been 20-something women.

I've found two remarkable things about working with the millennial subset. First, 20-somethings bring so much passion to this effort and so little baggage. Most of these young people threw themselves into their volunteer mission out of a commitment to a cause bigger than themselves and a desire to help others who they'd never met before. As Britta explained, "Traveling simply as a tourist is unsatisfying to me....It is important that I learn exactly where I am in the world and to try and expand my compassion as much and as far as possible."

I marvel at how anything seems possible, with daily actions reflecting a willingness to confront failure. Neither Britta nor Okxana designed a website before launching IRODA's site. Phoebe Shelor of Cedar Park, Texas spent the summer teaching French in a one-room school house to children in a shepherding village in Morocco's mid-Atlas mountains. She studies French but had never taught it before. Similarly, Liselot Koenen of Chicago took science classes at Georgetown, but she had never taught chemistry. Liselot was supposed to teach English in a Zanzibari public school this summer, but taught chemistry after that teacher took maternity leave and her classes were left without a substitute.

They and others faced tasks beyond their comfort zone and figured it out. Alessandra Testa, also of New Jersey, taught English to young people in Morocco, reflected, "During my time here, I have been in more challenging and uncomfortable situations than I can count, but each one has taught me invaluable lessons about embracing change, accepting and adjusting to the unexpected."

Which brings me to the second point I've noticed while working with millennial volunteers: a desire to build professional experience and skills. Millennials hear repeatedly that the job market is terrible and that they have to differentiate themselves with real skills. Almost all of our unofficial ambassadors self-funded their experiences -- through savings and grants -- in part to build skills and experience.

Sarah Wall of Indiana set-up a monitoring and evaluation plan for a women's health organization in Indonesia. She explained the investment in herself, "My goal after finishing my master's program is to work in international development. Whether I work abroad or in a domestic position, the experience of learning first-hand what it is like to work in an NGO in the developing world -- the resources, limitations, work culture and pressures they face from both the government and society -- will be invaluable to me in the future."

Just 22 percent of Millennials volunteered last year. That's disappointing, but those numbers don't reflect the depth, impact and scope of how some of these young women and men are investing their time and money. There are websites in Tajikistan and global citizens in the small towns of New Jersey, Indiana and Texas who are reasons for optimism.

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