One-year EVS experience of 25 years old Alba from Sevilla who decided to take a gap from university and went to Northern Ireland to achieve her dream to become a volunteer. It changed her life in many ways, she faced many hard situations, did hard decisions and enjoyed her staying there.

  1. Introduce yourself.

My name is Alba, I’m 25 years old and I come from Seville. I’m currently finishing my Master’s dissertation in neuroscience and before that, I did a bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology, minoring in Anthropology and Social Sciences. I love both Science and Arts. In my free time, I enjoy reading, painting and being out in nature.

  1. Where did you do your EVS?

In Belfast, Northern Ireland (United Kingdom). It is a very interesting place, from a political and sociological point of view.

  1. Why did you decide to go on EVS?

When I was about to finish my Master’s degree, I was still thinking about whether going for a PhD or not, so I decided to take a gap year and do something different. Volunteering was a dream of mine since I first started uni. Volunteering abroad was even more appealing. So when I heard about the EVS programme at the university I knew I had to make it.

  1. What were your tasks to do there?

I volunteered in a hostel for homeless families. As part of my role, I organized activities for them − both children and parents − related to arts, music, sports, cookery, etc. Anything enjoyable that could boost their life skills. We also had special events such as a Halloween party, a Christmas dinner or St. Patrick’s day, and long-term projects.

Also, we decorated the hostel by painting murals on the walls, built an outdoor area for children to play in and installed planters to grow vegetables, and we even had a jumble sale for second-hand clothes! On the days I wasn’t working on a specific project, I just spent some quality time and having fun with the families.

Because most of the people there were struggling with very difficult situations, just chatting with them or having tea was a great emotional support for them. With time, I became somebody they could trust in.

  1. Did it change your life somehow?

Actually, a lot. The EVS experience made me reflect on many aspects of the professional life I am about to start, and although it took me a while to make the decision, I finally decided not to pursue a PhD at the university for the moment. EVS helped me to get to know myself better and give me the courage to make hard decisions.

Thus, I am now looking for a job that better suits my personality and ambitions. I also met my current partner while in Belfast, another EVS who was volunteering for a nature conservation project.

So yes, EVS changed my life in so many ways I would have never thought before going for it! It broke down barriers in both professional and personal aspects. At my last training before leaving, our mentor asked us to write a sentence about our experience.

 I wrote ‘EVS makes you brave’. I think it is an accurate summary of the impact it had on me. I am braver to make decisions and more flexible to welcome the future and any change or opportunity it may bring! So, let’s see what’s next!

Innumerable and priceless things. As I said before, I got to know myself better and learnt to be braver and more flexible. I now rely more on myself and trust more my ‘gut feeling’, as a friend used to tell me. I learnt to be ok with life’s uncertainties and just take the most of it. The unknown also implies a large number of opportunities to be discovered.

  1. What did you learn there?

Of course, I also expanded my professional skills. Working on my Youthpass helped me to realise how much I learnt, haha. (Some advice, Yourthpass is actually useful in that sense, don’t leave it for the last moment!). I learnt job-related skills such as organising events, IT skills and working with vulnerable people. I also learnt other things like new cookery recipes from other countries, a few words in other languages (Irish, Polish, Finnish…) and even learnt some steps of Irish dancing!

However, the biggest improvement was on my communication skills. Even though I already spoke English and French before going on my EVS, I still struggled a bit. Now I am fluent in both of them and can speak, think and even feel in  Spanish, French and English indistinctly.

  1. Did your expectations meet the reality there?

Not really at the beginning. At first, families in the hostel didn’t come to the activities at first, so I struggled to introduce myself to them. After a month and a half, I felt a bit desperate because I still didn’t know how to approach the issue and involve families in activities. However, it was just a matter of time and I just kept insisting. Actually, during that time, the families and I were adapting to each other.

Understanding a foreign accent, adapting to a different way of working, and even understanding the complexity of the society in Northern Ireland after the Troubles… All that takes time. So, after a while, we got to know each other better and soon became close. It may have been difficult for the first few weeks but I have invaluable memories from the families and staff at the hostel.

On the social side, EVS was better than I ever thought from the beginning. This is what kept my mood high when the work in the hostel was tough. The EVS community in Belfast was huge: there were 19 of us EVS people living in the same neighbourhood, coming from many different countries and volunteering for different projects. Belfast is also a very exciting city.

There are many cultural events all around the city all year round. Painting, poetry, and music, of course, are present in every corner! If you don’t know what to do, there is probably music playing at any local pub. Music and drinks, just an excuse to hang with your friends. No chance to get bored!

  1. What about the culture of the country you stayed in?

Well, this is pretty complex and anything I can tell you is probably just a simplification from a foreigner’s point of view. When it comes to Northern Ireland, you need to consider many sensitive aspects of the history and sociopolitical climate, so I will only talk about my experience and don’t want anybody to feel disrespected.

Even if the Good Friday Agreement put an official end to The Conflict in Northern Ireland in 1998, you can still feel some tensions amongst the citizens. Currently, Northern Ireland belongs to the United Kingdom. However, broadly speaking, the population is still quite divided between -broadly speaking- unionists/protestants, who support UK membership, and nationalists/Catholics, who associate with “being Irish”.  Consequently, their cultures are different and depending on the neighbourhood you’re at, you can have the impression of being at a British or an Irish quarter. There are neutral zones as well, of course.

Maybe by chance, maybe not, I ended up being very close to ‘Irish’ people and culture. I enjoyed it a lot.  It’s a bit difficult to describe it all but, in a nutshell, I would say it is a culture of fairy tales, storytelling, giants and leprechauns, charming and very welcoming people, family and friends, music, dance… And perhaps a ‘wee’ problem with alcohol! Ha, ha! Very happy people.

  1. Was it hard to change your life from one day to another day?

Not really. It was exhausting at the beginning, to have to speak in English all the time. And then, changing some habits, of course. Obviously, I kept trying to get into cars on the driver’s side since the first day they picked me up at the airport. Or getting scared every time somebody drove in a roundabout on the left side. But apart from that, nothing really hard ha, ha. The first days, I was very excited, everything was new, so many things to be discovered. Little by little, you get used to your new reality.

  1. Can you tell us something very interesting about your experience?

Something very interesting happened during my first week of EVS in Northern Ireland. The night of the 12th of July, the Protestant community celebrates the victory of King William of Orange over a Catholic king in 1688. For that, families accumulate things that they want to get rid of in specific places and then make a huge bonfire out of them. It kind of reminds me of ´La Noche de San Juan’ in Spain. Some EVS people and I went to watch a bonfire close to our neighbourhood. How surprised I was when I found out that there was a flag of the Republic of Ireland on top of the bonfire to be burnt. But most importantly, there was a European Union flag as well… I mean, taking into account Brexit, this was pretty predictable. However, it was extremely sad for me to see it. In the end, the EU is the reason why I was volunteering there.

Maybe burning flags was not a generalised thing over the city but seeing it had an impact on me. My Erasmus and Erasmus+ experiences have taught me to cross boundaries and appreciate differences. I strongly believe that there are more reasons that bring us together than the ones that set us apart.  I think these kind of programs are crucial to raise European awareness and definitely would invite everybody to travel around and discover our common values.

  1. Do you have any funny stories?

So many! The majority of them are related to miscommunication and ‘Lost in translation’ issues. For example, whenever I didn’t understand a question due to the language, I used to answer by asking back ‘maybe?’ The problem came one day when somebody asked me if a volunteer I had met right before was a fellow (a man) or not. Because I didn’t know the meaning of the word (fellow), I again answered ‘maybe?’. Everybody started laughing and I understood that there was something wrong with my response. Not a perfect technique, indeed, but we had many such jokes ever since!  

Also, on my very last day in the hostel before my return home, families and staff prepared a surprise for me. They came in the room with a big cake in which you could see a huge Spanish flag printed in the middle of the cake with a sentence saying: “Lamentable usted se marchen, Alba”. Spanish speakers will know that this sentence is grammatically incorrect. I guess online translators still need to be improved… However, it was the cutest and funniest cake I have ever received! We had so much fun that day!

  1. What about the people you met there?

In general, I found the people in Northern Ireland extremely welcoming and willing to help you. Also, they would talk to you randomly in the streets or the supermarket, even if you don’t know them, and ask where you are from and what you are doing in there. This was just a healthy curiosity, and always had a smile associated with it. Considering that I come from the very south of Spain, I always asked myself how they can cope with such a rainy weather. Then, well, I realised that the people in NI are just as warm as the sun itself, so maybe they just don’t need it that much!

In regards to the EVS community, some of them have become true friends. The EVS experience was so intense that I built very solid bounds in a very short period of time. I still chat with them at least twice a month and I’m looking forward to meeting them all in France, Finland, Austria, Hungary, Canada, Italy or wherever they move to!

  1. Do you recommend EVS to other people?

Definitely yes. If you want to challenge yourself, discover Europe, cross boundaries and meet fantastic people, is it definitely your program.

Interview realized by Radka Malinčáková

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