What should I do after graduation?
Uncertainty upon graduation is a pervading theme among many college seniors, and the fact that there is no “right” answer adds to the anxiety. There are some who believe that the importance of obtaining a college degree (at least in a humanities or social science field) has passed. Generally speaking, bachelor’s degrees no longer guarantee admission into the professional workforce, and (if you listen to the cynics) certain degrees provide no more than a one-way ticket to Baristaville. For students, there are thus questions that loom: How much are the degrees we are working towards worth? Would time have been better spent working or doing something else for 4 years? While the decline in professional prospects for recent college-grads has been overstated, the educational uncertainty problem is very real.
In response to the professional uncertainty brought about by a lack of job opportunities, many decide to defer the "official" start to their careers for a while. These programs and experiences, generally referred to as gap years (which are getting more common in the U.S., but are standard practice in other parts of the world) can help recent-grads explore a variety of career fields and personal interests while gaining experience, knowledge and understanding about the world. Going abroad to teach English is a popular gap year experience which, as BU alum Samuel Wiseman’s case illustrates, can be both emotionally challenging and relevant to building one’s career. Wiseman traveled to India to teach in a small school district for a few months. I had the chance to speak with Sam about his time teaching abroad:
Phil Sepulchre: What motivated you to engage in volunteer service after graduation, and why did you choose India?
Samuel Wiseman: So essentially, for a very long time I've been interested in seeing the developing world. I've been reading about and seeing images of the struggles of people there. My parents came from not so easy backgrounds, especially my father. They grew up in Iran, during times of war and revolution. And my dad saw enormous amounts of poverty, hunger and suffering in his upbringing. By today's standards we could consider that he lived in poverty. He told me about these things he saw since I was young, and that got me interested in the struggles of poor people around the world at a young age. It wasn't until last year, that I finally decided that I should stop putting off my desire to go and see the developing world. It's funny, but what really brought out my inspiration, was actually a movie. It's called The Human Experience. It's about a group of young guys who visit poor communities and see the way of life for these people. When I watched that, I immediately realized that this was something I definitely wanted to do. So to put it all in one sentence:
I decided to take this trip to see firsthand how a huge portion of the world lives and struggles, and find a way that I could contribute to helping this cause.
I chose India particularly, because I knew it had a large, very poor sector of its population, and felt a connection to its values and culture.
PS: I understand that you went to India to teach. Could you elaborate on specifically what the goal was upon arriving? What were you going there to teach?
SW: Upon arriving, it was:
1) To see the conditions and struggles of people living in the slums.
2) To learn from them. I've heard that despite this enormous amount of poverty, they still live happily and make do with the little they have and
3) Find ways that I could contribute in helping them. But most importantly, my goals were simply to learn and observe, and then take it from there.
PS: What was the first thing you thought when you got to the community where you would be teaching. Just immediate gut reaction.
SW: It was overwhelming. Very overwhelming. Garbage littered the streets, there was very little infrastructure. But the most shocking thing was when I went inside a home in the slum. The house was incredibly small. Each house would be about the size of a college dorm room. A whole family, of maybe 5 would have to sleep in there--on the floor. And all their supplies were stacked there as well. Some were better than others though. Some had beds, and even a TV. But they were all very small.
PS: How was their morale?
SW: It seems like it depended on the age group. The kids had so much energy. Very playful too. They were always outside, sometimes flying kites. And then anytime another volunteer or I walked by, they would all run towards us, say hi and follow us. They seemed joyful overall. But the older people seemed different. They seemed just completely drained.
PS: Why do you think they seemed so drained?
SW: Just given their circumstances in life--having to work 6 days per week, 8 hours/day and still suffering and not being able to ever advance out of poverty. Some carried bricks for a living, others were iron welders. They generally earned about 200 rupees a day ( about $3.33) and that had to feed their whole family. All of them said they didn't have enough money for food or medicine. One of them was able to have only 1 meal per day. Bottom line, I think they were hopeless because despite working so hard, they were still unable to provide for their families.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. For almost all of them, their biggest hope was for their children to go to a good school. I remember a woman named Shushma who said, “If we don’t have food, no matter what we will send our kids to school. We don’t want them to become like us.”
PS: Did that make you feel like what you were doing [going there to teach] was that much more important?
SW: I question how much my presence teaching there really impacted things over there. The school I taught at was just very bad, and gave false hope to many children and families. But the real takeaway that I got out of all of this was that education was really extremely important for changing their circumstance (for their kids, at least)...and that led me to believe that the best way I can make an impact is [through] education hands down.
PS: Do you believe that the current volunteer opportunities/organizations that function abroad, do an adequate job of catering to the actual needs of the under-privileged? What do you think can be done to help more?
SW: I can only speak for the one I volunteered with--called International Volunteer Headquarters. I think this organization did their best. I was able to ask the director every week for new supplies for the classroom (which was included in my 10% volunteer fees), and they checked up on my project as well. Often times, the volunteers come in for a short time (1-2 weeks) and make small impacts. But sometimes there are volunteers that do big things and make big impacts. So to put it short, they do an adequate job, but ultimately it's up to the volunteers themselves whether or not an impact is made. I think that this organization should have done more to reach out to us and ask for what supplies were needed. Many of the volunteers (except for me) were simply unaware that 10% of our fees went towards developing our projects, and for a very long time no one asked, so the places we worked at still lacked necessary tools.
PS: I've gotta run back to class so I'll wrap it up with a 3 part question. Would you go back? Would you recommend others to engage in the same kind service you did? And, how do you plan on acting on your experience moving forward?
SW: I would definitely go back on another volunteer trip, whether it be in India, or another part of the world, maybe a country in Africa. I would encourage others to engage in this type of service, so there is more awareness, and a greater chance of a big impact. I am already acting on my experience, as I am currently at an organization in my school that helps the world's poor through awareness, and fundraising. It's called Globemed. [Additionally,] A previous volunteer, who stayed in the same slum as I did started an organization called Squalor to Scholar (http://www.squalortoscholar.org/). This organization has taken in funds from all over the world, and sends kids to the schools in our area. It's only $250 per year for the kids to attend the school. And already 127 students have received funding. So great way to make an impact.
Special thanks to Samuel Wiseman for sharing his journey with us.
-Phil Sepulchre, CCE Social Media and Marketing Intern