Here is an interview published on GoAbroad covering my program with IVHQ in Cartagena, Colombia.
Raven Cortright – 2017 Program Participant
What inspired you to go abroad?
I love traveling, but I also feel like it’s important to make the most of of the ability to travel. It’s a luxury. So like to find ways to combine travel with service.
Why did you choose International Volunteer HQ?
I had always been interested in Colombia. But as a personal trainer, I also love all things active. So the sports development program there was a perfect match.
What was your favorite part about Colombia?
The people were so incredibly friendly! Even with minimal English, they were so helpful, patient, and a general joy to be around!
What made your experience abroad unique?
My volunteer group was so small, yet so diverse. We had volunteers from the US, Australia, Ireland, Colombia, Canada, and Mexico.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
We had meetings every week to voice our concerns. But the staff ate dinner with us and took us to our outings, so if we ever needed anything they were with us.
What’s one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I wish I could have stayed longer.
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
I would wake up at 5 am, go for a run along the beach, then return home to shower. I’d then eat breakfast that the cook, Sophia, makes each day. Usually it was arenas, fresh fruit, freshly squeezed Jugo, and granola. Then we’d all head out to the first volunteer outing of the day. We usually took the bus or a cheap taxi to the place where I played dodgeball, soccer, water balloon games, and jump rope with the youth at the rehabilitation center. We would then return home in time for a homemade lunch. Afterwards, we could pick another program and volunteer for the afternoon or have the rest of the day to ourselves.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
I loved hitting the beach, which was only a few minute’s walk away! On the weekends I also camped at Tayrona National Park and hiked in Minca where there are coffee farms in the mountains.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
It was nice and spacious. There was no AC, which made it fairly hot. But we had mosquito nets around our beds to keep those at bay.
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
The older children really like to play soccer, so just go ahead and let them. They don’t get to play sports every day. They’re really good so step aside and let them at it.
What was the hardest part about volunteering abroad?
For me, the hardest part of volunteering abroad is the language barrier. While knowing basics of the language is certainly helpful, it’s still difficult to fully get by and understand the kids without fluency. But it’s also a fun challenge. I became really good at charades, and it’s kind of a do-or-die to learn at least the basics of the language. Very few people in Colombia spoke any English at all, so I was completely immersed in Spanish for the entire experience.
What surprised you most about Colombia?
I was definitely the most surprised by the variety in landscapes Colombia offers. I volunteered in Cartagena, which is hot, humid, coastal country. But I also went to Minca, which was 20 degrees cooler and in the mountains. There are also rainforests and deserts.
How difficult was it to communicate with locals?
It’s very difficult, as Colombia is one of the countries with the least amount of English fluency I’ve ever been to. However, the locals are also some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met and are always eager to try their hardest to help. The coordinators are also very helpful in facilitating communication.
Active mud volcano right outside Cartagena
What is one thing you wish you would have known before volunteering abroad in Colombia?
I wish I would’ve known how awesome it is, so I could have planned a longer trip!
If you could volunteer abroad again, where would you go?
I loved Cartagena so I’d love to come back. But I’d also like to explore Medellin, since I ran out of time to visit.
What do you feel the biggest benefit of volunteering abroad is?
The biggest benefit to me was the introduction of an entirely new culture. I was able to fully experience the food, the language, the music, and everything.
Do you have any packing tips for individuals headed to Colombia?
If volunteering in the summer, definitely pack cool loose clothing. There’s no AC and at times, it was almost unbearable. Definitely bring sunblock and bug spray as well.
Now that you’re home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?
I feel more compassion for the troubled youth. I also have completely erased the stigma of Colombia as a dangerous place.
Would you recommend International Volunteer HQ to others? Why?
This program was life-changing. It’s the perfect way to make a difference while also exploring the world and making a whole group of new friends.
Raven Cortright is a nutritional science and French double major. She studied abroad in France, and then backpacked Mexico, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Morocco, and the United Kingdom. Raven has also backpacked a lot across the United States. She loves travel and fitness. Raven is a certified personal trainer, as well as a marathon runner and competitive rock climber.
Interviewed on – 7 November 2017