BY MATTHEW TEEL
When visiting another country, it's so easy to enjoy yourself. The pleasure of experiencing and seeing new things all around you is shocking and adventurous by nature, but at what point do these new locations and their cultures you decide to explore become challenging to bare? Do you think you could live in a foreign country for two years? If so, working, studying, or volunteering abroad could be an interesting option for you to look into during college or after graduation.
To help shed some light on moving to a new country and the lessons learned from volunteering abroad, Thomas O’Brien shared with us his memories of teaching in Morocco. O’Brien is the Director of Research for the Center for International Trade and Transportation (CITT) at California State University, Long Beach, and is a living example of how working in a foreign country can be one of the greatest things you can do to improve yourself and the lives of others.
What motivated you to live in a new country?
I joined the Peace Corps just out of college partly because I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do and I didn't know who was going to hire me. I had a good general foundation of liberal arts skills, but I really loved language and I had studied abroad in France when I was a sophomore, so I wanted to pursue that lifestyle again by volunteering abroad. I thought that the Peace Corps was a good transition out of college, so I interviewed to join, and before I knew it I was offered to go and teach English in Morocco for 2 years.
Tell me about your experience in the Peace Corps…
We were sent to the capital, Rabat, in the summer of 1986, for training before being transferred to our designated towns. My ID card number was 1, because I was the first volunteer located in Missour, a small town which was there because it had a road that eventually lead to Algeria. I was an English teacher in a boarding school and, without realizing it at the time, I had developed my leadership strengths and management strategies thanks to this experience. There is a lot of self discipline required in teaching and living daily in a foreign environment, but I liked the challenge of educating students and cultural adaptation. I love language, so being able to speak Arabic and French, while teaching English really enabled me to thrive there.
After proving my capabilities in teaching and linguistics, I earned an administrative position with the Peace Corps my third year in the city of Rabat. So by my third year out of college I was in a leadership position, representing the Peace Corps by doing on site inspections of the other volunteers and their high school's across Morocco. . . I left with a set of concrete skills that I would not have been able to develop had I not volunteered abroad with the Peace Corps.
What is the most rewarding part in volunteering?
I believe I have made a difference in providing a different example and perspective for the students that I taught. I was able to contribute to the learning of my students, the teaching of my coworkers, and I hope I changed the presumption of what Americans are like for some people in Morocco. I also think I made a difference back home, with my family and friends in having them question their presumptions about what they think the world is like outside of the U.S. I did leave an impact on the lives of my students, but I think volunteering abroad left a much greater impact on myself.
Social media has helped me reconnect with many past students from Morocco and most recently, I heard from my greatest student. He was a poor boy from a village outside of Missour that I taught in the boarding school. He is now a U.S. citizen and translator for the U.S. government. He has translated Arabic for the supreme court and stood out to me because he was always a go-getter. His journey from a small village in Morocco to where he is now is pretty amazing.
A lot of joining the Peace Corps for me was pursuing personal fulfillment and development. I got the opportunity to travel to places I never would have, I got to do things, in retrospect, I could never do nowadays; like, should I really hop in the car with these guys I don't know? But I did it. I accepted opportunity. By taking on these types of adventures in a foreign country, I gained a lot of self reliance and independence which is beneficial for whatever you do in life.
How can students interested in volunteering get the most out of their experience abroad?
Don’t go into the country with a preconceived notion. Specifically with the Peace Corps, my sense is that you’ve already had that internal discussion with yourself of why you are volunteering, so when you get there, give it time. I had some friends that left early because things for them didn't work out right away. If you go abroad, you must take advantage of where you are, appreciate everything new around you, and find the humor in the daily challenges of being immersed in a new culture. . . you will enjoy yourself in the end.
I am proud that our university and dean have contributed resources to help make study and volunteer abroad opportunities more available for our students. I think that any international experience will help you in life and that the right time to do it is right after college. You have a lot more responsibility tying you down as you get older, so help yourself grow as a person and go on an adventure. Living abroad is not a limiting experience, it is a broadening one. You gain experience which changes your outlook on life, the way you think, and because of this more often than not, more doors become available for you to open. Everyone talks about a gap year nowadays and if you're going to have one out of college why not give it a higher purpose? I would do it all over again. Why not help others and yourself?