Haiti got you down?

In Self-Publishing on April 19, 2010 at 4:25 pm

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Haiti got you down? Consider becoming an international humanitarian aid worker.

As more attention is given to the global community, the resources to get involved are also becoming more accessible. Especially on large college campuses like the University of Florida.

On Tuesday, Recurso, a student organization focusing on humanitarian aid and development, hosted a “How to Become a Foreign Aid Worker” discussion featuring Elizabeth A. Porter. Porter holds a doctorate in food and resource economics from UF, has an extensive international background and currently teaches at Jacksonville University.

Last Wednesday, a Peace Corps “Globe Talk,” featuring five veteran volunteers, was held to expose students to raw stories from abroad.

As Chris Cudebec, who volunteered in Albania from 2005 to 2007, put it, “Every single person in Peace Corps has a poop story.”

And while these weren’t shared at this particular meeting, Amy E. Panikowski, the UF Peace Corps recruiter, said she feels that the realistic information students receive prior to traveling internationally helps prepare them for the unpredictable experiences volunteers will have.

A combined total of about 100 students attended both of these events, which is an indicator of the interest in international involvement on campus.

UF’s Peace Corps numbers also reflect this with a total of 67 students who followed through with the application process during the academic year of 2008 to 2009. This year, there have been 50 applicants. The yearly quota for the UF campus is 30.

There are various reasons for these numbers, Panikowski said. The Peace Corps campaigns heavily on campus, but also relies on word-of-mouth among the many globally minded students who have a common desire to play an active role in development. The economy may also play a role, she said.

But the Peace Corps is by no means the only route to offer international services.

In fact, Porter emphasized the necessity to get involved immediately. This could be with a community organization like the Red Cross or Planned Parenthood or one of the many student organizations on campus.

It takes a disaster to galvanize some people to volunteer. However, inexperienced volunteers easily become just another person who needs food, shelter and water.

“You quickly become part of the problem,” Porter said. “I’ve seen it happen.”

She also advises taking a look at the personal motivation driving you to get involved. It’s one thing to want to feel personally fulfilled. It’s another to actually make a difference in a foreign community.

“At the end of the day, my motivation for me is to make the biggest impact,” Porter said. “There is a part of me that feels guilty for not being in Darfur saving babies. But my biggest impact is as a teacher.”

Experience in education, logistics, language, technology, mechanics or engineering can go a long way in providing real help, especially when trained to handle crisis situations.

“I felt like I don’t have enough experience,” said Katherine Buchanan, 23, a mechanical engineering senior. “I was really glad she was referencing a lot of things you can do to put in your resume. It kind of hit me when she said it’s not enough to just want to help.”

Porter recommends taking an inventory of skills: both the skills you have and the skills you need to get. These include leadership, management and foreign language skills.

It’s also important to be able to improvise and be flexible, while also being humble and respectful.

“Recognize when you get there, you absolutely know nothing,” Panikowski said.

Frantzie Saint Juste, 22, a political science junior from Haiti is minoring in international development and human assistance. Saint Juste helped rebuild a community center in Louisiana after Katrina and plans to organize a schoolwide community service campaign next year. Her classes have given her a much clearer perspective on international assistance, she said.

“You can give someone something,” Saint Juste said. “But it’s better to help them figure out how to do it on their own.”

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