(Dr Hudson) found in volunteers the desire for a challenge that will take them out of their comfort zone...
Can do? Better to 'make do'
Kiwis ‘can do’ - right? And when it comes to voluntary work overseas, that's important - but not as vital as one other characteristic: 'making do'.
VSA volunteer selection adviser Dr Sheena Hudson has assisted with volunteer selection for more than 10 years. Sheena, a counsellor and psychotherapist, completed a study on the effect of voluntary overseas development assignments on career development.
She found in volunteers the desire for a challenge that will take them out of their comfort zone. Sheena’s research also shows that in personality testing, VSA volunteers score above average for openness and agreeability. These are particularly important attitudes for volunteers, she says, because of the challenging situations they are like to face, be it physically, morally or ethically. An example is having to come with a culture that has a different definition of, say, corruption from the average New Zealander’s understanding.
She points out that our Kiwi 'can do’ attitude can in fact, be unhelpful for volunteers because it implies a need for high achievements and success rates, which may be difficult to fulfil. More important is a ‘making do’ spirit for volunteers who are likely to be in situations where they have to improvise to ‘make something out of nothing.'
For example she recalls a volunteer who found himself on an island where there was no reliable water supply. While not there to fix the water and expecting to come up against such immediate problems, he had to pitch in and improvise to help the community.
The Hero’s journey
As part of her PhD thesis Sheena Hudson compared VSA volunteers with previous studies on expatriates, assessing them according to the metaphor of ‘the Hero’s Journey’. The earlier study noted that people who choose to work abroad embark upon a ‘career adventure’, often described as a lifetime quest that is guided by the idea of ‘follow your bliss’. Like the hero myths of old, the expatriate ‘hero’ experiences cultural, physical and emotional challenges during their ‘adventure’, causing the individual to re-assess their values and attitudes.
Sheena wanted to know if people who volunteer for VSA are on a hero’s journey. She found that, while volunteers didn’t use ‘hero talk’, their experiences were dominated by challenges, including their assignment and the cultural challenges they encountered. Many of them came home ‘transformed’, having learnt new technical or personal skills, increased their self-awareness, or reassessed their values. On return from their assignment, 61% of volunteers identified new technical skills and 56% new personal skills that they had learned.
As well, 62% of the volunteers said they had a much fuller understanding of themselves and 65% more awareness of their values and roles in life.
Sheena also found that VSA volunteers have certain common characteristics that slot within what’s called a ‘protean career’ (or versatile) model. Such characteristics include enactment, challenge, resilience, self-development, autonomy, self-esteem and an appreciation of the importance of work relationships. She noted a high sense of altruism and that many volunteers are on a quest to find ‘the meaning of life’. They also exhibited a strong desire to experiences alternative life/culture and have an adventure.
Given the fact that VSA attracts peoples with these kind of motivations to do development work overseas, it could be that it is not New Zealanders per se, but the types of Kiwi going, who have given the country a good name as aid workers.