John C Friend-Pereira, from Moylena in Tullamore is volunteering with VSO as an Advocacy Management Adviser at the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association Cambodia. We asked him what A Day in the Life of a VSO volunteer is like.
What made you decide to volunteer with VSO?
During college I was very interested in international work and education policy and I was lucky enough to get some experience through the students’ union. I then did a Masters in International Human Rights in the Irish Center for Human Rights so it seemed natural that after working for three years in same job in Ireland I should apply to become a volunteer and share some of my experience and get some new skills.
What does your role in Cambodia involve?
I work with the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA) www.cita.org.kh which is the largest teachers’ association in Cambodia. My role as three parts, to advise on the advocacy strategy and policy development, support the implementation of CITA’s organisational development plan and assist with project management.
Describe your average day.
A normal day starts at 6.30am (which is late by Cambodian standards) when I wake up to the latest Morning Ireland podcast (I am very lucky that I have internet access and can keep up to-date with the news from home). After a quick 10 minute cycle if the streets aren’t flooded and traffic isn’t too bad l arrive at the CITA office at 7.50am and get my laptop set up before the day officially starts at 8am and my colleagues arrive. The first thing I do is check my emails and the newspapers to see if there is anything urgent relating to CITA’s advocacy strategy or education generally and update my colleagues if there is. It is small office with a wdedicated team of four full time Cambodian colleagues so we are all busy; planning workshops (we do two every month), preparing and managing projects (which is our main funding source) we have two ongoing with the ILO and Association of Teachers’ & Lecturers (ATL) and are applying for two more, or researching different aspects of the Cambodian Education system.
Before lunch I have brief meeting with my colleague Rachana (who is also acts as my translator) to go over the work that we are doing. These meetings are very important as it ensures that Rachana can keep the CITA President Rong Chhun informed gets his input as his English like my Khmer is very basic.
Lunch is from 12pm to 2pm and with the temperature hitting 30C I like to head straight to local pool and skip eating. In the afternoon we normally have quick meeting with Mr Rong Chhun to get his approval and feedback.
Depending on what is happening we might have a press conference on the educational issue of the day (June to September is state exams and corruption, September to December Teachers Salaries and the rest of year a myriad of issues including health and safety, discrimination and individual cases). Today we will be going to the EDUCAM meeting which is forum for all education stakeholders that meets on a monthly basis. By 5pm we try to wrap up but sometimes it can be closer to 6pm when we finish.
Then I grab some food at one of local restaurants, the food is good and dinner usual comes in at $2 to $4. Depending on the evening it is either a quite night in, or maybe a table quiz or gig with friends at one of the many bars in Phnom Penh.
How did you adapt to life in another country and culture?
I have done a bit of traveling (I had been to South East Asia in 2009) so was prepared for the element of culture shock. I also have the ability to eat almost anything which has helped in adjusting as small stomach problems are the biggest issue people have at fist. For me the biggest areas of adjustment was to the weather (hot and humid), the daily cycle (getting up at early and in bed my 10pm) and pace of life which is a great deal slower if more chaotic than Ireland. Over the past 18 months I have adjusted to the weather and dread returning to famed Irish climate, getting up early is still not something I enjoy and I don’t think I will every adjust to the lack of government accountability or chaotic decision making systems in Cambodia.
What would you say has been your greatest achievement to date?
There are three things that come to mind the first two are publications that CITA produced which was a position paper on Teachers’ Terms and Condition and National Teacher Survey 2011. The third was helping to organise the World Teachers’ Day 2011, this involved the press launch of the Give Teachers’ a Voice Campaign and public demonstration with over 700 teachers, parents and children participating. The campaign was supported by several teachers unions including the INTO. I have just finished working with my organisation CITA on the Global Campaign The Big Picture. We organised a childrens art exhibition and raised over $750 which will supply art materials to 17 schools for an entire year. In addition we printed a teacher resource for Early Childhood Education.
What are the highs and lows of life as a VSO volunteer?
The highs include working hand-in-hand with your Cambodian colleagues gives you a much better understanding of where they are coming from and creates a sense of solidarity and taking joy in the small changes that you contribute to and learning to adapt to a different work culture. The lows include being away from friends and family can take its toll but staying touch is still relatively easy and managing to live as a volunteer in a capital city where the creature comforts are available for a price.
How did you overcome any difficulties in Cambodia?
I am very lucky too have a tight group of very close friends here and at home that have been tremendously supportive and encouraging when things have been difficult. In terms of practical issues the like health, accommodation etc VSO team in Cambodia are great. My mum also provides me with regular gifts so I get to indulge myself once in a while.
What new skills will you take back to Ireland?
The new skills I have developed include oganisational management and development, project management, advocacy management, and public policy management. I have also learnt the value of soft skills such as decision making and analysis.
What would you say to someone considering volunteering with VSO?
Do it! It is a fantastic experience, take it on with an open and positive mind, you will not only contribute but gain so much. It is the kind of experience that will enrich you as person and can literal be life changing. In the current economic climate being a VSO Volunteer offers the chance to reshape your life and to get some perspective on what really matters.
The Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA) was established in March 2000 and gained formal recognition from the Ministry of the Interior (MoI) in July 2001. CITA is the only independent, nonpartisan, non-profit, non-governmental teachers’ union in Cambodia. All government and private employees teaching from kindergarten to university level are eligible to apply for membership of CITA. Through national and international campaigning, CITA advocates for improvements in the difficult working conditions facing teachers in Cambodia and lobbies the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) to recognize teachers’ rights.