"The Most Vivid and Intense Time in My Life"

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A volunteer interview from Maya Bridger on her placement in Australia

What made you volunteer in the first place?

 I had been interested in taking a gap year for some time. Some people are lucky enough to have a vocation from a young age, but I’m not one of them. Although I have some passions and ideas, I wanted more time to develop them before starting post-secondary. I was drawn to the idea of taking some time off after high school to work or travel, and volunteering turned out to be a perfect combination of the two!

How did you find out about the Lattitude program?

Lattitude did a presentation at my school. Funnily enough, I actually missed the assembly! One of my friends went to it though and told us about it at lunch. She ended up deciding not to pursue it, but it was just what I needed to put into action the vague longings of world travel I’d been entertaining. Perhaps it sounds naïve, but I wanted an adventure. My whole life I had been defined by my family and the community around me. I was confused about who I actually was.

I don’t think that sounds naïve at all – in fact I think that’s what most people are looking for!

Yeah, I mean I wanted to go somewhere where no one knew me and establish on my own terms what my values were and what I’m capable of. And, as I think many people my age feel – I was frustrated. The world around me seemed so big, but my own world seemed so small. I wanted a taste of what else was out there, and I suppose I wanted to stand on my own two feet as well. Australia was both similar and different from my own preconceived notions and I think I had a fairly realistic view of it before arriving.

Yeah, most people have the idea that our volunteers just go to hang out at the beach and surf all day!

Some of my friends actually thought that! I mean, I was aware that away from the busy urban centres, the majority of Australia is much more rugged and down to earth. I also wasn’t ignorant to the history and situation of Indigenous peoples in Australia, although I certainly thought I knew a lot more than I did. Overall, I was amazed at the diversity and pride in Australian culture, both in the Indigenous community and in the general population. Certainly getting to spend time with Indigenous people gave me a much deeper appreciation of the country. Who else could better understand the vast, beautiful and powerful land where their ancestor had lived for thousands of years? It also gave me a lens into aspects of Australian culture and history that a lot of people are ignorant to or don’t want to acknowledge. I’ve heard people call up north “real Australia”. I don’t know about that, but I will say there is certainly a call to the land there – away from the chilly southern cities and touristy beach towns.

So why did you pick Australia when you were deciding on where to go?

I picked Australia initially for pretty simple reasons: I love hot climates and beautiful places and as an added bonus, the official language is English. Since it was my first time travelling internationally by myself and living away from home, I wanted to start off with something a little more familiar. I’m very grateful that I was encouraged to apply for an Indigenous school program.

Yeah, we really try to get volunteers to pick a placement that will challenge them and not be too familiar. The Indigenous program is a great balance of familiar (being in an English speaking country) and a new environment and culture (being surrounded by a rich Indigenous culture).

For sure. I wasn’t sure if I would be up to the challenge, but I’m glad now that I was pushed out of my comfort zone. My experience was so much richer because I was lucky enough to be placed at Shalom and I have a lot of respect and gratitude that I got to spend time with Indigenous people and learn about their cultures. I remember preparing myself to be slightly disappointed with the reality of Australia because I had such a glorious vision of it in my head.

It can be difficult to manage expectations, especially right before you’re about to leave.

Australia was so much more amazing than I could ever have imagined though. I fell in love in a way that I didn’t expect to with the land. Aussies are amazing so long as you’re practical, down-to-earth, can laugh at your mistakes and most importantly, know how to have fun!

Can you describe your placement at Shalom Christian college?

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At Shalom, gap staff (commonly referred to as gappies) worked on a rotating schedule. Every week we would alternate between secondary, primary and the school’s health clinic. I would say in the classroom we pretty much performed the duties of a TA (teacher’s assistant). We would help students with their work, run errands for the teachers, and help supervise the class. In the health clinic, we helped the school nurse, especially by fetching students from class to come down to their appointments (which was quite the wild goose chase half the time).

What would you say was the most important quality to have at the school?

The most important thing was flexibility. Every day was slightly different, and rather than sticking to a set routine or list of duties you had to be ready to respond to the situation and environment around you. Coming from a traditional school background, I was very shocked at first by the differences at Shalom. It is certainly less organized and much more chaotic than I was used to.

How were the kids?

The kids were tougher! There were lots of fights and several times, the police had to be called. But I had grown up in a very protected bubble and I had to realize the backgrounds that a lot of these kids were coming from, and have compassion and patience. That is also what I think is wonderful about Shalom. It tries it’s best to help the kids and meet them in whatever situation they’re in. Many other schools might turn these kids away and Shalom doesn’t. Although there were many challenges, there is also a lot of strength and pride and I know so many of these kids will grow up and be a positive force in their communities.

What was your accommodation like?

A really cool thing about the Shalom placement is that you get to live on the school property in little units they call “dongas”. The donga is simple but comfortable. You have a bed, a sink and a little bathroom – plenty of space for one person. There’s a central rotunda with a laundry machine and TV where you can socialize with the other donga residents, gappies, school nurse, year 13 students and elders who are there to mentor the kids. You take meals in the dining hall with the kids from boarding which is nice because it gives you the opportunity to get to know them better (about half the school are boarders, and the others are day students).

Did you have time off? What did you do in your free time?

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On weekends, you have the option of tagging along on boarding activities with the kids, often to the beach. Or if you need time to yourself, that’s okay too. Something I worried about before arriving was whether I’d have enough time to myself. I’m a relatively serious runner, and I was concerned I would be too busy to fit in my own interests. Also, I’m a vegan and was living in the middle of cattle country!

I hear you! I’m a vegetarian too, but often don’t find it to be too limiting.

Yeah, I shouldn’t have been so anxious about it. There was a gym and a mall right down the road and one of the teachers lent me a rice cooker to help me make my own meals. If you manage your time smartly, you can find a perfect balance between your job and your own time. If you’re open and honest, there is usually a solution to whatever issue or concern you’re having.

What was the best part of your placement?

The people I met were definitely the best part of the trip for me. As I said before, Aussies are very friendly and I got to know quite a few of the teachers well and became friends with some of the TAs who were closer to my age. In my first week there, I met the school nurse. She was a seriously cool and awesome lady who looked out for me, gave me advice and took me to play poker with her twice a week. I love her so much for the advice and laughs she gave me.

Awesome! How about the other gappies?

Unfortunately there was quite a bit of drama, and by the end of it some of us weren’t speaking to each other. I got along better with others, but I won’t be lifelong friends with any of them.

Oh, that’s too bad!

Yeah, I won’t go into it but I would advise prospective volunteers to understand that they might not necessarily be best friends with everyone on their placement – and that’s okay. It was good to learn how to work with all sorts of people and not let personal difficulties impede your ability to do your job. We don’t like everyone we meet in life, but we learn from all of them and we should appreciate every lesson we’re given.

Very true. It sounds like you made the best of it. Did you manage to connect with the students at Shalom?

I certainly can’t talk about Shalom without talking about the kids, who were the highlight. Although they were very different from me, and at first I was honestly a little frightened and intimidated by them, I grew very close to some of them and value the time I spent with all of them. There were so many great kids- funny, sporty, smart, fiercely proud of their culture and determined to overcome obstacles in their lives. I won't sugarcoat it - there is a lot of pain and challenges. There is still a lot of racism and division in Australia, and generational trauma from colonization that effects Indigenous peoples today. But there is also a lot of strength, faith, family, determination and love, and Indigenous cultures, languages and people remain unbroken. The most special part of being at Shalom was being with the kids, teaching them and learning from them, and although many gappies come and go and they surely can't remember us all, I will never forget them. 

How did you cope with the big differences between Australia and home?

I think I was relatively lucky in that I didn't find the adjustment too difficult. I immediately loved the climate and the environment, and people were very welcoming and friendly. Of course, there was certainly a shift between living with my family to being on my own, as well as going from being a high school student to being a staff member. There was amazing independence and freedom that came with it, but also a lot of challenges and responsibilities.

How about homesickness? It seems almost all of our volunteers go through some degree of homesickness.

I remember feeling very bereft and homesick for the first several weeks. I want to tell everyone that it will pass! I think the most important thing that can help you deal with these feelings is balance. Keep in contact with your friends and family back home, but also try to put yourself out there and make news bonds. I wouldn't have made it through my time there if I hadn't fostered connections with people who helped and supported me. Likewise, balance your new life with your old one. Be open to changing, but find time for your activities and hobbies you enjoyed from back home. For me this was running, reading, and writing. It helped me de-stress and ground myself. Although I was living my life in a different continent, it was still my life, and I was still Maya. Reminding yourself of these things can be helpful if you're feeling overwhelmed. It's important to be open to the culture and customs around you, but also to remember who you are and what your values are. I saw other gappies throw themselves into fitting in, almost recreating themselves. Everyone has a different way of coping and adjusting, but for me it was important to have boundaries and a sense of self. I don't suggest going overseas to "find yourself", and getting caught up in everything that comes your way. No one entirely knows themselves - especially when they're young - but it's important to have a base of values and beliefs and build from that. You will be much more confident in yourself and able to help others if you respect what is different from you but also respect yourself.

Great advice! How about cultural differences? Obviously there are more similarities than differences, but did you have trouble adjusting to Indigenous culture?

The adjustment was double for me: adjusting to Australian culture and also to Indigenous culture. People were very kind, welcoming, and patient with me as I learned and educated myself. They knew I wasn't going to get it all right away and I do remember feeling a sort of loneliness and isolation at times. Because I had a lot of love and admiration for the cultures around me, I knew I wasn't part of them and couldn't be even though I wanted to.

What was the most important thing you learned through all of this?

I think the most important thing I learned was that although we divide ourselves by lines of nationality, race, social class, sexuality - all humans are in essence the same. We all take pride in our land and traditions. We love our families, we want to have fun and laugh, and we all suffer griefs and sorrows and work our way through them. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that although there was an adjustment period, I was surprised by how much like home Australia felt- it's a big world, but it's also a very small one. 

What do you think was your favourite moment or memory?

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Oh God, this is a tough one. The time I spent in Australia was certainly the most vivid and intense time in my life so far. It was only a handful of months, but so much happened! I can pick one best day during our term break when some of the gappies went up to Cairns. One of them went on a bus tour with me into the Atherton Tablelands. After several days of expensive and touristy trips to Green Island and Kuranda, this was a breath of fresh air. For 60$, a chummy Australian guy named Steve drove us and about eight other tourists around on an old bus for 12 hours of swimming, walking, and road tripping. We swam in beautiful natural spots like Josephine Falls, Lake Eacham, and Milla Milla Falls, we walked through the rain forest, and he took us to a pond where we saw platypuses out in their natural habitat. It was fun, relaxed, and absolutely magical! As we wound down the mountains on twisting roads back to sea-level, I felt so satisfied and so in love with the beauty of this country.

Amazing, what an adventure! What was your favourite memory from the school?

Auntie Marianna, a beautiful and warm housemother from Vanuatu, sat up with me in the evenings and taught me how to weave purses out of pandana leaves. I met the greatest pair of cousins, related to Cathy Freeman (a famous lndigenous Olympic gold medalist). They were hilarious, free-spirited kids, and it was really hard to say goodbye. I also met a group of girls from up in the isolated Northern Territory. They barely spoke English, but they would walk with me and show me pictures of their families back home. I remember them saying they loved me and they would pray for me. I feel lucky that I got to meet all these people.

How did you grow from this whole experience?

I definitely had to learn to deal with my own problems and rely on myself more. Although I did have a lot of support, it was different than having your family around you. I was my own agent. I had to manage my own schedule, make all my own decisions, and deal with whatever professional and personal issues that arose. I think I had to grow and change a lot. From the emotional to the mundanely practical such as doing my own chores, shopping, laundry and cooking. I was no longer a high school student, rather I was expected to be someone mature, strong, and steady that the students and staff could rely on. It was quite a switch for me from going from being a student just a month ago to being expected to behave and conduct myself like an adult. There were certainly times when I felt a bit overwhelmed and it's hard to be young and on your own but overall I'm very pleased I had the opportunity to live on my own in a foreign country. I think I developed a sense of self-confidence and ability that I didn't have before that will serve me well for whatever I take on next in my life. As I often joked during particularly tough scrapes: university will be nothing next to this! 

So what are your plans now that you’re back in Canada?

I'm heading to UVic (University of Victoria) in September. I was accepted into the Humanities department for the 2016/2017 school year, but I deferred so that I could go on my Lattitude placement. Until then, I'll be working and saving up money again. I'm back at my old job as a cashier that I had before leaving. It has been quite tough and frustrating going from such a dynamic and exciting experience to working full-time at such a menial job. I was warned that I might experience a slump on returning home, and I have found that to be the case. After the initial excitement of seeing my friends and family subsided, I have felt a sense of boredom and annoyance set in. It's frustrating to feel that you have changed so much and yet your hometown and friends have stayed quite the same. I find myself feeling envious of my friends who are at school. Working full-time at a grocery store certainly isn't mentally stimulating or particularly exciting.

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We call it reverse culture shock!

Yeah definitely! But life has its highs and lows, and you have to put in hard work to have your rewards. I realize how lucky I am to have had such a unique and amazing experience, and if life has to be a little slower now for a while, so be it! Other than the personal skills I developed while volunteering, my experience helped me find a direction in my career goals, which was one of the main reasons I decided to volunteer. I enjoyed being a teacher's assistant so much that I've decided to become a teacher. Most of teaching is a frustrating uphill battle, but those moments when you break through to a student and really connect and help them learn a concept is such a precious feeling that it more than makes up for it. I really enjoy the social aspects of being at a school community. Because I'm somewhat introverted, I want a job that makes me interact, engage, go outside my comfort zone, and always continue to share my skills with others and grow myself. Teaching is about sharing knowledge, but also learning from your students. Children have a lot to teach us, if we can have the humility and wisdom to listen to them. On my return, I've had two friends approach me about Lattitude, and I enthusiastically encouraged them to give it a shot. Although every placement will be different depending on who a person is as an individual, I think I can state unequivocally that if you put your best effort and attitude into your placement, you will have a transformative experience that you will remember for your whole life!

Maya Bridger-Denz was placed at Shalom Christian College in the northeast corner of Australia, near the tropical city of Townsville. She volunteered through the second half of 2016, working with Indigenous kids as a schools assistant.