Reflections from our Volunteers: Making a difference in the world & what that means

Making a difference in the world & what that means

 – By Jamie Lee, University of Sydney student and participant in CUFA’s Community Placement Program 2016.

“You will make a difference in the world!”

“You will change people’s lives!”

“What incredible work you are doing for those communities!”

As I told people I would be heading to Cambodia for 4 weeks to work and study as a CUFA intern, these are the common responses I received.

People who knew me previously had at least some vague idea about my passion and dedication to volunteer as a social worker regardless of location. Hence, I was very thrilled during my engagement with CUFA – through the process of application, booking flights and so on. Despite endless ‘things-to-do’ when preparing for the trip, it was something that persisted me through the stressful examination period. Meanwhile, as an eager volunteering intern myself, my mind began to build unrealistic expectations about the potential result I could bring to the country without even truly knowing what I would witness and experience through my experience with CUFA in Cambodia.

I think it is fair to say I was overly confident about the role I would undertake within the organisation during such a short period of time. For me, this whole idea about ‘making a difference in the world’ was about bringing equality and abundance to villagers, finding the ultimate solution to avoid poverty, giving external views about the world by sharing knowledge from the university and personal experiences. However, it did not take that long for me to realise that one person does not solve the problems of poverty by flying in for a month.

The rural side of Cambodia as it is a very different environment compared to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. The countryside was beautiful, and I constantly found myself mesmerised by the breathtaking view of endless rice fields, sandy unpaved roads with constant traffic caused by cows and water buffaloes. There were also ordinary cars on the streets, which you can only tell if it is a taxi when they stop for passengers (there was not a single sign) and traditional Khmer houses (two-storey buildings where the basic structure is a wooden frame and bottom part is used during the day which essentially acts as a roof). To be honest, it was the most underdeveloped place I have ever been in my life. But the fact was that it was an incredibly rural area, and had been almost completely isolated from the rest of the world. Even the harvesting of rice was all done by hand.

Along with my fellow interns, my role was to support the local credit union through CUFA’s Credit Union Development program. This system is essential for local villagers who are unable to access more formal institutions, due to lack of income, geographical isolation and lack of credible identification. I found myself unfamiliar with the environment and lives of villagers.

Due to this, the other interns and I took even more responsibility and had the privilege to be involved from the initial stage of work – figuring out the purpose of our journey and inventing projects and solutions.  We were the first ever participants on CUFA’s University of Sydney internship program and I realise our privileged position.

Overall, the program I was most impressed with was not that the farmers and small sellers in the community were using the accounting systems, it was also not seeing local banks increasing the community participation rate by 200%, nor was it seeing the increased savings capacity through the Kids Saving Account. Before the trip, as a person wondering what kind of long lasting impact of change I would be able to make, these outcomes are what I would have desired to see. But, I saw myself becoming stronger, not only physically, but also psychologically. This enabled me to personalise the overall purpose of this trip. There may not be any profound and measurable change that I myself directly made, but I noticed a deeply personal one.

This was achieved not only through the work I did with local CUFA staff, but also through hearing their stories and witnessing the history, politics, living culture and education practices in Cambodia. By completely blending into their everyday activities, from three meals of local Khmer food (my favourite breakfast was beef noodle soup, called Kuy teav), shopping in markets where bargaining skills are essential, and being surrounded by a foreign language, taught me the great lesson of widening my perspective. It was such an awakening experience, which made me realise how little I knew about the world. If somebody ever asks me to summarise this experience in one sentence, I would say this: It was the most unforgettable and valuable life-changing experience, which I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone who is willing to stretch and challenge the way you perceive yourself and the world.



I hope you enjoy the few photos below from my time in Cambodia.

– Jamie Lee


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