Find Self Transformation in Volunteering Abroad

What it’s really like to quit your job to volunteer abroad

I truly believe life is too short to be doing stuff that doesn’t make the soul bounce. Since the day I chose purpose over comfort, I’ve had some of the most meaningful and enriching experiences in my life, both professionally and personally. Here’s a true story of nurturing self-transformation.

What makes you jump out of bed in the morning and look forward to your day?

For me it’s knowing that my work transforms lives.

Currently, I am the Senior Education Director at SOLS 24/7 Malaysia, a Malaysian foundation and social enterprise that provides education in English language and personal development. The foundation implements grassroots education projects in underserved communities. The social enterprise serves through paid educational programs provided for corporate companies and universities who want to increase the value of their business or the employability of their students.

The training and teaching materials my fantastic team and I prepare reach up to 15,000 beneficiaries a year. The mission I contribute to is beautiful. I get to see real self-transformation in our students. From having low self-esteem and a limited perspective on their future, to dreaming big and daring to express.

I have seen students who hated learning because they always found themselves in the position to fail and be punished for it. It only takes the investment of empowerment and allowing these students to achieve.

Success breeds success, and in no time they’ll be shining and understand that learning can be fun, not only useful. Learning may be forgotten but transformation is permanent. I make it my personal mission to enable my team and the students to believe in their limitless potential, to be open to embrace opportunities and to work hard enough towards achieving the best version of themselves.

A Self Transformation Journey

Let’s get back to when, how and why I chose purpose over comfort.

Spoiler alert: this is not a very unique story, quite a typical one instead. When I was 17 years old I started volunteering at a local NGO, which opened my eyes to inequality and lack of opportunity. Ever since then, I naively vowed to change that.

I soon learned it wasn’t that easy. While pursuing my bachelor and master studies, I continued volunteering and accessing every opportunity out there. I was traveling around Europe, attending, organizing and delivering international youth development programs.

I saw young volunteers turning into trainers, choosing their careers based on those projects, and finding their purpose. Indeed, I was making a change. While my university friends had some sort of jobs, made money and could afford fashionable items and events, I chose to work mostly for free and build on this impact.

Graduating found me panicking because volunteering didn’t help me become financially independent. So I got a job at an accounts company.

I didn’t like or hate the job and stability came with it. It lacked something though, and I soon realized I was craving for training and impact again. Badly. So badly that after work, almost every day, I was researching educational programs I could join.

When I found the Community Centres project in SOLS 24/7, I couldn’t believe it. It took me months to find something that promised me the opportunity to facilitate community and self-transformation through education.

Now the decision of purpose over comfort was a bit tougher than expected. I was supposed to give up my stable job where I was gaining appreciation fast. I would have to give up medical insurance, an apartment, friends and everything I built in Romania to move to Malaysia for one year. I’d move to unknown village which would only be decided after my on-boarding training.

I would receive a small living allowance, visa, accommodation and training. I’d have to pay for my flights there and be ready to also fail the training and go back home.

I’ll admit, the thought process was intense.

While weighing what I considered to be the risks against the purpose of my journey, a friend tried to help. She asked me this: “If you feared nothing and you knew everything was possible, what would you choose?”

The question tortured me for three days. The more I thought about risks, the clearer my fears became. And since I knew amazing things happened on the other side of fear, I decided to take the leap.

So I packed up my life in a suitcase and moved for a year.

Then the real game began. I had never lived in a tropical country. Experiencing different cultures, climate, thinking and spiritual life was fascinating. The work culture slapped me sideways several times and I learnt to adjust.

  • About a month in I found myself after a long day at work gazing at the sky and feeling the deepest most peaceful happiness.
  • Two months in, on my birthday, dengue fever got me by my feet and banged me against the wall 20 times.
  • Three months in, I was teaching in a rural area at the community hall. Outside there were water buffalos and gorgeous limestone mountains in the background. I was loving my 200 students. The youngest was 8 years old and the most senior, 75.
  • Four months in, I was losing my hair like a tree loses leaves in autumn. I panicked and looked it up online. Obviously, every article told me I was going to die in a month. A specialist told me my body was going through a metabolic shock and kicked into survival mode. I started having nightmares my students would run away in fear.
  • Six months in, I was still teaching. I cut my hair short and my students were still with me. That’s when I decided transforming the world would take more than a year, so I offered to stay one more … And continued with the main transformation I’d been working on- my own growth, self-discovery and personal mastery.

It’s been such a journey, but purpose has been my guiding light.

When I was struggling, knowing the work I did followed my purpose really kept me going. And let’s be honest. Still in Malaysia five years later, sometimes I crawl out of bed in the morning.

All this “serving others” is energy consuming, but at the end of the day when I crash back in bed, I feel I am one step closer to transforming myself and the people around me. I am given honor, and for those more on the spiritual side, the blessing to have the tools to serve others.

With more than five years of project management in Europe, Daniela Strîmbei moved to Malaysia in 2014 to start working in grassroots education. She is currently the Head of Education and Training Department at SOLS 24/7 Foundation.

For more on self-transformation, check out our Personal Development story section.

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