A Volunteer Services Abroad participant on their experiences in Samoa
In 2019, Lauren, a University of Auckland grad, set off on the adventure of a lifetime. After successfully being matched with a Volunteer Services Abroad (VSA) assignment, Lauren travelled to Samoa for 10 months where she worked with local communities in need of her unique skill set. She kindly shared her experience in an interview with Craccum.
What did your volunteer assignment involve?
Initially, when I received the contract, it was written down as a tourism assistant for the Savai’i Samoa Tourism Association. Once I got there, that really quickly morphed into more of a marketing and design coordinator role for them. A couple of the things I worked on within that was firstly leading design and content creation for them to market the island as a tourism destination. That involved working on social media from an awareness point of view. I helped them to develop innovative and sustainable marketing strategies to better promote the island, which had just never been in place before. And then also, this was kind of out of scope and off the initial job description, but after being on the island for a couple of months, I realised that there was a big need for when I left. Who would continue the work that I was doing? It can’t be just on the association that I was working for, it had to also fall on the shoulders of all the tourism providers on the island. So that, you know, kind of holds them accountable to market themselves. So, I helped design and run a couple of social media marketing training programs around the island to develop the marketing skills of the local operators.
What was it like living on the island?
It was stunning. However, it was far more difficult than I thought it would have been. Having travelled previously and backpacked by myself, I didn’t think that homesickness was going to be a thing, but it definitely was. In saying that, it’s all about mentality, you know. You’re the only person who can dictate your experience on the island or wherever you’re placed. So, you are in charge of going out and creating the best experience that you possibly can. For me a total highlight was just forging all of the friendships and relationships with people in my village, at my work, and on other islands. They’re people who I just would have never been exposed to previously. I still keep in contact with a lot of them today.
Why did you decide to apply for a volunteer assignment?
So, I had ended up going backpacking for a couple of months and then swapped my degree from marketing to industrial design. It meant that I was about six months behind my peers. Two of my friends had studied Development Studies and they had applied for the VSA volunteer program. They got placed in Timor Leste. I was lucky enough to go visit them for about two weeks in my final year of uni, and yeah, seeing their experience and the adventure that they were getting to go on—a quite meaningful, impactful adventure [was motivating]. They also urged me to apply. But initially I thought that it was only for people who studied Development Studies, or, you know, very similar degrees. I got in contact with VSA and they said that it’s not just for Development Studies students—if there’s something that is suitable to your skillset, and there’s someone who has, you know, requested those needs, [VSA] would never rule anyone out. So yeah, it was after that where I ended up applying and got placed in Samoa the following year.
What impact do you think you had on the people there and the Savai’i Samoa Tourism Association?
I guess the impact kind of relates to seeing the teachings that I left them with—the social media marketing training and stuff continuing to be used now. It’s quite awesome to say that, you know, you’ve taught someone a skill that they may not have had before.
What do you think is the most important thing you learned?
I think it’s that you are the only person that can dictate your experience. That was a really good learning for me, because we’re so used to taking what other people say, and taking that at face value. But if you continuously do that, well, then you’re not experiencing things for yourself. You’re experiencing stuff through another person.
What’s a memory from your experience that you’ll never forget?
I ended up going to a fishing competition. It was on the other side of the island and I was just meant to report it. But then [the competition organisers] invited me to come out on one of the boats and take images. I ended up catching a marlin and winning an award. That made the paper—which was pretty funny. It was a laugh and I was like, oh, you know, that’s what you get for saying yes.
What sort of people do you think should volunteer?
I think anyone who would like to have an adventure and someone who has a passion for being involved in something bigger than them. I think they don’t necessarily have to be resilient. That’s something that you learn over time. If the thought of doing something like this scares you, that’s great. It means that you feel something for it. I was never, you know, a super A-student at university or anything like that. But I had drive and ambition, and, you know, empathy and care and a lot of other “paper” traits. Those are the things that make you a really valuable employee or volunteer.
What are some of the ways that VSA supports their volunteers?
So, they support you from a financial point of view—they pay you what they call an allowance, which is non taxable. You get paid a monthly allowance which depends on the location that you’re in. [They also cover] any medical expenses before and after you arrive.
From a non-financial point of view, they have therapists and stuff like that available for you to call whenever because it is really testing at times. It’s nice knowing that you’ve got that, especially if there are no other volunteers around. You also always have an on-the-ground VSA coordinator. Sometimes they’re from the country, sometimes they’re a kiwi who has been sent across.
What would you say to students considering volunteering with VSA?
I think it’ll feel scary once you arrive, and [then] be exciting, and then it will be scary. But it will be one of the most rewarding experiences that you ever do. Don’t be afraid to forge those connections and don’t shy away from the local way of life in favour of the expat version. Dictate your own experiences; don’t take someone else’s [experiences as] face value. Try it out [for yourself], and you might have a different opinion.
Photo provided by Lauren Griffin