GoAbroad Interview

Aurelia Mickunas - Short-Term Program Coordinator

Aurelia MicKunas - Short-Term Program Coordinator

Aurelia is a Short-Term Program Coordinator at United Planet. She grew up in a big Lithuanian community in Boston, MA, and has been surrounded and fascinated by her own culture and interested in understanding different cultures since she was young. Aurelia graduated from the University of Vermont in 2014 with a degree in Psychology focusing on cross-cultural communication. Her most recent and memorable travels abroad have been trips to Belize and Lithuania.

How did you become connected with United Planet?

I am from the Boston area originally, and was looking to do work in a non-profit close to home. I found United Planet, and was immediately intrigued by the work the organization does and the amazing mission. I applied for the Program Coordinator position and got it!

Xunantunich Mayan Ruins in Belize

Aurelia’s group in Belize at Xunantunich Mayan Ruins. Photo credit to Molly Milliken

What does your day-to-day look like as the Short-term Program Coordinator?

As a Program Coordinator, I am in charge of responding to inquiries from potential volunteers, as well as helping enrolled volunteers through the entire process of going abroad on our short-term programs. I get to interact with people from all over the world who want to make a difference, and this makes all the work worthwhile. I work specifically with projects in Ecuador, Chile, Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, and Romania.

In your role, how do you help students prepare for the experience of volunteering abroad?

I walk them through the entire pre-departure process in preparing for their Quests, and make all arrangements with the help of our coordinators in-country. We are available to answer any questions our volunteers have.

What is the best advice you can give to a future volunteer?

I cannot stress enough the importance of being open to new things while abroad. If you want to get to know local culture, take it all in and be flexible and open to every new experience. This is the best way to really immerse yourself in a new culture and get the best out of your Quest.

HIV and Diabetes awareness mural in Belize

Belize group in front of a HIV and Diabetes awareness mural. Photo Credit to Jenna Sweet

How do you ensure the safety of your volunteers abroad?

Safety is our top priority here at United Planet. On every Quest, locations and projects are vetted for safety, and we provide 24/7 support for volunteers before they depart and while they are in-country. Our coordinators both in Boston and abroad go through extensive training in safety and risk management, and volunteers will go through training as well, in addition to orientation themselves upon their arrival in country.

What type of living arrangement do you think is most beneficial for volunteers?

We find that host family accommodations are the most beneficial. The host families love having United Planet volunteers stay with them, and they provide a sense of community and family to the volunteers. Any accommodation that allows an individual to be completely immersed in local life tends to have enormous benefit.

You speak Lithuanian, Spanish, and English, how do you promote language learning before and during a short-term volunteer abroad program?

I have always been fascinated with language, I believe language learning is essential to the abroad experience. In our Latin American countries, some basic Spanish is required for almost every Quest. This is crucial to be able to communicate with the coordinators, the project, and the host families while in-country. We offer Spanish lessons in these countries as well, and most of the time these lessons are included in our program fees. In our other short-term program locations, language lessons are also available during orientations, and we always encourage our volunteers to be proactive while abroad and take advantage of living with a host family that is happy to help you learn the local dialect!

Volunteer teacher in Dangriga, Belize with local students

Group leader with children from the school United Planet volunteered at in Dangriga, Belize. Photo Credit to Molly Milliken

You’re fairly new to the United Planet team, what has been your biggest achievement so far?

Being able to contribute any little thing to this organization has felt like a great achievement to me. Promoting cross-cultural awareness and being able to connect others to this incredible experience has been extremely rewarding.

If you were to go volunteer abroad on one of United Planet’s programs, which would you choose?

I work with six of our 10 short-term program countries, and so I may be a bit biased in my answer! I would love to travel to every single one of our locations, as each program has something unique and amazing to offer. If I had to choose just one, I think I would have to choose Tanzania, as it’s the country I started off knowing least about.

What is your favorite part about working for United Planet?

The connections I have made with people who work here, as well as volunteers, and in-country coordinators have made working at United Planet a truly worthwhile experience. I love that I can talk about my travels and volunteer work and be excited about it, while surrounded by so many others who share this same view.