Meet Millie

In our experience over the last 30 years, the majority of young people who make
the decision to go abroad for a long-term volunteering placement find it to
be a life-changing experience that helps shape them as people. One
volunteer who had such an experience is Millie from Denmark. We asked
her to tell us more about it.

Can you tell us a bit about your project?

I worked at Mangu Youth Centre in Seoul, South Korea, from 2017-18. I was an assistant teacher in the kindergarten, which meant I did everything from getting the kids ready for swim class, playing with them between classes and, once my Korean got better, also helping them answer problems during class. I remember helping a kid with his Korean homework once and another teacher teased him for being taught Hangul (the Korean alphabet) by a foreigner, which I thought was cute.

Why did you want to volunteer?

When I was finishing up my last year of high school, I knew I didn’t want to go to university right away. I wanted to live a little first, experience things and have my own life before going back into the education system. A bit of freedom, preferably as far away from Denmark as possible. So, volunteering seemed like the perfect plan; a chance to go abroad, get to know people and do some good in a community. Although the Korean projects are mainly focused on childcare, the cool thing about it is that you get to expose an otherwise (at least at the time) often isolated culture to your own. For most people I met in South Korea, I was the first Dane they’d ever even seen, so it was cool to share my own culture with them too. I made so many good friends from just being willing to be exposed to something different and in return exposing others to my own “different”. That’s why I wanted to be a volunteer.

What are your fondest memories of your time in South Korea?

I have so many honestly, I could go on and on. Top of the list is for sure our volunteer Christmas party, where all eight of us gathered in one of the hotel rooms. We had a fake fireplace playing on the TV, and a mixture of Taiwanese, Danish, French, German, Finnish and Korean Christmas songs played while we swapped presents. I remember two of the other volunteers had made chocolate mousse by melting butter and chocolate on their radiator (we didn’t have access to a kitchen as all meals were provided in the hotel restaurant or at work). That was really special and just felt so magical. Our Finnish friend dressed up as Santa because in Finland they say Santa lives in Lapland. We played Danish Christmas games and ate some French jule log cake. Then we of course also had some drinks and went to a karaoke room, but I swear, it was the magic before that that makes the memory special. In general, I think my best memories are the ones we made together as a group,

What was the most challenging thing about your experience?

I think a lot of people might say being away from family, but I was 20 and ready to live my own life. For me, what was hard was just that; finding myself. Being away for the first time, completely on my own and having to figure out who exactly I am outside of my own culture, my usual context, my own boundaries. I grew up thinking I was an introvert but in Korea I discovered that I’m actually very much an extrovert. I always thought I was a picky eater, but suddenly I found that I could try new things and if I didn’t like them, that was okay. But it took time for me to get to that point. To figure out what independence meant while still fulfilling the duties of my work and project. At times, it was hard to be a foreigner in Korea as well. As a fairly homogenous culture, I stand out very clearly as a blonde, curly haired European and sometimes that attracts some unwanted attention. Again, it all played into me having to figure out who I was – suddenly as a foreigner in such a different culture, truly away from home and parents for the first time, completely in charge of my own money, living with seven other people from different countries, etc. It was hard, and we did have some disagreements, sometimes even with Mr. Kim, the ICYE leader in Korea. But I think I grew from it, more than I ever would have at home in Denmark, and I made friends for life. Even with Mr. Kim, who bought me lunch when I went back to visit this summer.

What is the biggest lesson you learned from volunteering?

I think, again, my biggest lesson was about myself. I learned to really be myself, I guess. Not to get all sentimental or anything, but I think growing
up I always sort of tried to fit into the box I felt like others fit into. A bit more reserved, toned down, you know, typical Scandinavian. But in Korea, I realised I was going to be different no matter what, I could never truly be Korean, so what was the point of trying to fit in? I think I just learned to stop trying to live up to a perceived ideal, and I took that with me back home and became a lot more confident in myself and my abilities. That might sound a bit wishy washy, but I think if you ask any of the people I was with that year, we all felt similarly. We all came sort of thinking “life is hard and no one understands” and then slowly got to know each other and our different backgrounds. Each person has something they struggle with, I think someone famous once said that. Living so closely with everyone there for so long really made me realise that, which helped me step outside of myself and just let my fears and resentments go.

If Millie’s experience has inspired you to explore the idea of long-term volunteering, make sure to reach out to us to find out how you can get started.