Volunteering as Education in Transition

We are no doubt living in an era of unprecedented opportunity for change in our economies and our cultural structures. While sometimes change lags where an outdated momentum remains, in many cases we’re seeing a speedy shift in the way people define their education and careers. Gap years are starting to become research sabbaticals for people preferring to complete their education at the University of Life. We’re making a transition, this is for sure — sometimes forced, while in other cases more measured. The intent is there, that is plain to see as a lot more people are questioning the status quo, but what’s most interesting is to observe how people are relating to the institutions and activities that are flowing in to meet these mindsets.

At the very base of this change is the question of relevant education and of course relevant employment. This relevance is surely the most important consideration in these areas, rendering them useless in its absence. In this vein, when we look to the educational systems through which we’ve moved, and beyond that to the activities we’ve been party to since graduating from them, how much relevance are we seeing? I’m not referring to a conventional relevance, but rather to relevance in a world that is clearly in need of new structures, new institutions and a renewed culture to fit into and create these changes.

A few years ago, in my mid-twenties, I left behind an opportunity to progress in a corporate banking environment. I had estimated (while day dreaming) the opportunity cost of missing out on real life experience to be far more important in the greater scheme of my development. Some would have criticized my choice, but I knew that a real-life investment needed to be made at the expense of what had been laid out before me in my shelf-bought education and career. I decided to take advantage of an opportunity to spend a year abroad, drawing on some savings and assistance, but essentially volunteering my labour and time in order to gain the sort of experience that would better shape the way I thought and acted for the rest of my life.

I started with a 21 day permaculture course in Northern New South Wales, Australia, guided by Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute Zaytuna Farm. I then proceeded to move through a variety of diverse locations to experience sustainability at its root, on the ground… in the ground. My choice was to be abroad for this, and that was personal, but I could just as easily (and more affordably) stayed right here in South Africa and possibly achieved even more relevance. I was amazed, once I was done, at how surprised people were that I was willing and able to go ahead with it. This was despite the fact that it felt so right to me that there was absolutely zero risk and only a ton of upside to expect from the whole experience.

My daydreams had yielded one of the best decisions of my life: In the middle of the booming information era, we’re often overcome with options and opinions, but our choices are very often vetoed by society’s expectations (or even worse, our perceptions thereof). What needs to survive the malaise, is a decent consensus on what real education actually is and what constitutes “experience”, especially for the developing youngster who will be making decisions that will shape their adult life. Don’t get me wrong, I have often, and will continue to use the “piece of paper” I earned at University, but had I understood earlier about the opportunities available to me through experiential learning, I would likely have never needed to. Experience mixed with education can be powerful, but in my opinion the real power is in showing people how to learn in diverse, real life environments… and consequently how to be more efficient in their pursuits of lifelong learning.

We can also look at this phenomenon from another angle, where the supply of opportunities for change becomes the main focus. The very health of a transition economy — evolving through conscious design — depends on the institutes, movements and organisations converting society’s intention into action on the ground. In turn, partly due to stubborn definitions of ‘value’ in the economy, their health relies on people who are eager to learn and willing to volunteer their time (along with a complete or partial loss of income) in return for opportunities. In this way they have the potential to learn the skills that are becoming increasingly more and more valuable in their eyes during these times of transition. Call it a life apprenticeship if you like. The ideal match is a glut of well designed projects brought mindfully into contact with the right people. These people are hungry for an experience and education far more relevant than that which is possible in university lecture halls. We’re finally moving beyond the point where students see volunteering as a mere section on their cookie-cut CVs, into a time where so-called ‘volunteering’ is education, and not just perceived as a supplement to it.

There are great opportunities for collaboration in this respect. As there is an increase in the demand for relevant experience and education, those who have the foresight and support to take the risk will supply the opportunities and find a desirable trade-off. This will hopefully become a prevalent win-win.

I’m excited to think of a time where more of an equilibrium is reached, creating in our education culture a balance between theory and experience. This will certainly lead to a more permanent culture than the one we currently push. Change agents will find the platforms to move beyond day-dreaming, creating the sort of watershed we need for real change to take root in our economies.

This may seem like a whole-hearted promotion of a sort of volunteer culture — the fuzzy space between learning and working. In truth though, it’s more of a wish for change in the way in which we view our transition… with the evolution of our views of education and experience right at the base of it.

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