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After You Finish
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You have finished - or you are about to finish - your assignment as an aid worker. It has been a unique and probably intense experience. You will have lots of priorities, like finishing your handover documents, briefing remaining or incoming staff, finishing any pending urgent projects, finding a new place to live or returning to your previous home, moving your things from one country to another, thinking about and looking for your next assignment, etc.
But there are some other important activities that shouldn't get lost as you transition from one chapter of your life to your next. They will help you to value your experience, to adjust during your transition, and to prepare for what's next. They’re based on advice from other returned aid workers:
Expect readjustment to your post-aid worker life to take time, certainly more than just a few days or weeks. Your values may have changed, and things may have changed in your home country. You should also be prepared for people around you back home to have a hard time understanding what you have experienced. Continue your willingness to learn, to listen to others, to think about the point of view of others, and to respect differences in opinion and perspective.
Reverse culture shock
You may find that it's a shock, and even hard to cope, with the change in your environment as you return home. This is very common and is sometimes known as reverse culture shock. Dr Ted Lankester has written well about it in his book "The Traveller's Good Health Guide" available from www.amazon.com. A guide to reverse culture shock is available here written by InterHealth, a UK-based medical charity.
What to avoid
A cynical, perceptive and amusing list of post-aid-work options is here. (Scroll down beyond it to see the discussion that followed.) There's no need to get stuck in any of these ruts. But it's good to be aware that some aid workers have done so, partly because they find it hard to make the large adjustment from the high-intensity life they've led.
The tips below are some suggestions on how to avoid the potential quicksand and head on into your future with a purposeful spring in your step.
Make time to reflect about your experience. (1) If you kept a journal or blog, keep writing in it during the transition and after you have returned home. If you didn't keep a journal, it's not too late to start. (2) Go through the material things you have brought back from your assignment, both professionally and personally-related, and write about them. (3) Organize and label the pictures from your assignment, while names and feelings are still fresh in your mind. This reflection will help you remember more about your experience later.
Tell your story
You may want to talk about your time away, but find that after a minute or two even your good friends start to look as if you're giving them too much information. It can be difficult to accept that even though you've been heroic or thrilled or traumatised or privileged by a life-changing experience, your friends only want to hear a soundbite now and again rather than the whole thing.
This is very common: don't worry about it. But if you can find a friend, or a professional counsellor, who's willing to listen to you for a long time, that can be a great help.
If talking about your experiences doesn't appeal to you, while it can mean that you're bottling things up, it may simply not suit your particular personality to talk about it. The talkers shouldn't pressurise the non-talkers into being like them.
What have you learned?
Inventory your new skills, knowledge, strengths, perceptions and achievements. You will want to add at least some of these new skills and your achievements from your assignment to your CV; this will help better position you for your next career chapter. After this inventory, you may even find that you want to pursue a new career path. What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles is a great guide to working out what job to do next if you're not sure.
Keep on learning
Now may be a good time to upgrade your skills through a training course or an educational qualification. If you are feeling the effetcs of reverse culture shock, getting stuck into a new mental challenge could help your past experiences to settle into place.
Stay in touch
If you haven't already, sign up for online newsletters, updates or forums by your sponsoring organization. This will allow you to stay up to date about the organization with whom you were associated and the work that it is doing.
Stay in contact with others with whom you served and other friends and colleagues in your host country. This can be just to say "hi" occasionally, or, to offer advice about projects you helped with that are continuing - if that is welcomed by your successors. Email provides an easy way to do this, and a postcard in the postal mail will also be appreciated.
Consider volunteering online to further support activities in the country where you served. The UN's Online Volunteering service (www.onlinevolunteering.org) is free. You could even help develop online volunteering opportunities for the agency you assisted in your host country, and help manage the online volunteers who sign up for those opportunities. You could volunteer for www.aidworkers.net – click here if you’d like to offer.
Write an essay about your experiences, to help you think them through. You could also submit it to your local newspaper, your college alumni association, a local NGO concerned with international issues, or a community of faith to which you belong. Email a copy of your article to the organization you worked through; staff may want to include your essay on the organization web site, a print publication or grant proposal.
Join with others
Join the nearest chapter of the United Nations Association. These chapters have regular meetings to discuss international activities. The web site of the World Federation of United Nations Associations (www.wfuna.org) can help you find a chapter near you. If there isn't one, it can help you set one up.
Cook a meal for friends that represents the country where you served, and display pictures and items you brought back from the country, to share your experience. Aim to make it interesting for them (less detail may be better than more) rather than mainly a chance for you to get things off your chest.
A fresh outlook
Don't expect future aid work to be the same as your previous experience as an aid worker; look at each new assignment as a brand new opportunity to learn and serve. If you decide to do something different, accept and even enjoy the fact that it is so different from what you did before. For most people it's good to take time to look back and reflect. But then, in a thankful spirit, move forward. The future is what matters now.
Some of these recommendations are based on suggestions from the book "How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas", by Joseph Collins, Stefano DeZerega and Zahara Heckscher.
Tags: After you finish