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Career Spotlight: the Australian Volunteers Program

The Australian Volunteers Program, is an initiative of the Australian Government providing opportunities to contribute to aid objectives through volunteering. In our interview, representatives of the Australian Volunteers Program discussed the value of volunteering and how best to approach securing a volunteering placement.

For those of our readers who don’t know about the Australian Volunteers Program, can you tell us about the program? What is the goal of your organisation and what opportunities do you offer?

The Australian Volunteers Program is an Australian Government-funded initiative. Each year, we send hundreds of volunteers to 26 countries across the Indo-Pacific, to work on projects led and driven by local people.

The program uses skilled volunteering to develop the capacity and skills of organisations and communities overseas, and in turn supports the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, a global call to collectively increase equality and protect the planet. The Australian Volunteers Program also promotes cultural understanding through connecting people in our region.

The program invites Australians from all locations and sectors to apply their skills to roles as diverse as Emergency Nurse Educator to Seahorse Marine Scientist, Graphic Designer to Communications Mentor, in countries as far apart as Samoa and South Africa.

Australian volunteers are supported financially by the Australian Government to work in communities around the world, providing a unique opportunity to develop relationships and grow personally and professionally.

What makes volunteering so valuable for students and young professionals in the field of international relations?

Volunteering provides students and young professionals with the opportunity to experience the diversity and breadth of work in the international relations field. It’s a great opportunity to determine which parts of international relations you’re most interested in, for example, you may prefer crafting diplomatic communications to on-the-ground disaster relief. Or maybe social research engages you more deeply than project management? Volunteering is an excellent way to get close to the action, build skills, refine interests and develop valuable industry contacts. Knowing this, AVI works with a number of universities to provide global perspectives and opportunities to education and student learning.

How does one apply for a volunteer opportunity with the Australian Volunteers Program? What personal competencies are required to volunteer?

Anyone interested in becoming an Australian volunteer should first head to our website to check their eligibility, and get a better sense of what an international assignment entails. Then, they can search through hundreds of opportunities by country, sector or keyword.

A range of personal competencies are required to volunteer, including resilience, flexibility, maturity and a willingness to immerse yourself in a new place and culture. Context is everything overseas, and understanding how to adapt is probably one of the most important skills required.

However, the volunteer assignments offered by AVI and through the Australian Volunteers Program benefit from a range of unique skills and experiences brought by volunteers from across Australia, and the many cultures, ages and perspectives they have.

How should students and young professionals approach a volunteering placement? What are the biggest challenges volunteers face?

Every volunteer, assignment and country is different, which is why the aforementioned flexibility and adaptability are critical. Being open-minded and well-researched about the country you’re going to, what the assignment might entail, and engaging with the briefing and training provided by AVI and the Australian Volunteers Program will minimise surprises and challenges overseas. Having said that, challenges are part of what makes the program rewarding, and will inevitably arise no matter what your assignment is. Challenges commonly faced by volunteers of all ages are:

  • Homesickness or longing for comforts from home

  • Frustration over rate of progress on assignment

  • Projects and outcomes being different in-country to what was specified on the assignment description

Challenges are best managed through regular communication with AVI and Australian Volunteers Program staff, who are always available to support volunteers on assignment. Additionally, communicating regularly with other volunteers, and with friends and family back home can reduce the distance between you and your loved ones and help resolve and ameliorate challenges encountered on assignment.

What advice would you give to students and young professionals who are interested in starting a career in the aid and not-for-profit sector?

Engage with the international community and the world around you and seek out opportunities like those offered by AVI and the Australian Volunteers Program. These programs offer unique opportunities to be placed in communities in Australia and our region, and to work on projects that are led and determined by local people. It’s real capacity development in action that is sustainable and has reciprocal benefits for all participants. Many volunteers regard the experiences they have volunteering as life-changing and go on to secure jobs in the international relations, aid and not-for-profit sectors as a direct result of their assignments.

These programs provide also exposure and connections to influential international agencies and not-for-profits including the United Nations, the Red Cross and local government ministries and departments.

Find out more about AVI’s student programs and the Australian Volunteers Program via the links below:

Photo caption and credit: Australian volunteer Jake Marusich works at Public Solicitor’s Office as a Criminal Unit Support Lawyer, Honiara, Solomon Islands. Here, he works with Senior Legal Officer Cathy Hite. Photographer: Harjono Djoyobisono

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