GoAbroad Interview

Elizabeth Ryder - International Program Support

Elizabeth Ryder - International Program Support

Elizabeth is originally from Littleton, Colorado but currently resides in Burlington, Vermont. She is a recent graduate of the University of Vermont with a degree in Environmental Studies with a minor in International Development. She has spent over two years of her life abroad and has been on three separate solo backpacking trips through Europe, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Africa. Her passion for travel combined with her knowledge of international development has made her a great addition to the Volunteers for Peace team.

How did you become connected with the Volunteers for Peace?

I interned with Volunteers for Peace in the Spring of 2014. I was a student at the University of Vermont and was receiving a degree in International Development. Working with VFP seemed like a perfect way to combine my degree with my love of travel.

Trekking in Northern Thailand

Elizabeth on her way to go rock climbing in Northern Thailand

What does a typical day look like for you in the International Program Support role?

My main role in the office is being the point of contact for all of our volunteers. When volunteers call the office, I am usually the person they talk to. It’s fun because I spend so much time communicating with our volunteers and helping them prepare for their trip that I feel invested in their adventures as well. I definitely travel vicariously through our volunteers.

I am also the emergency contact for all our volunteers who are abroad on their projects. I think it’s important that our volunteers know we support them the entire time they are abroad and I am happy to answer any late night phone calls, even for things as simple as a volunteer losing their luggage at the airport. Sometimes it’s just nice to know a familiar voice is there to talk to.

Volunteer with local children in Kenya

Elizabeth with the children of her host family in Kenya

What makes Volunteers for Peace programs different from other volunteer abroad programs?

Volunteers for Peace (VFP) is a non-profit organization. Lately it seems that volunteering is increasingly being associated with pricey, and touristy, experiences; this is because many for-profit organizations are offering very expensive “voluntourism” experiences. VFP is very inexpensive compared to other programs because we are truly a volunteer experience. We partner with local non-profits in each country we work within and allow them to develop the projects based on their communities most pertinent needs.

What is the number one thing prospective volunteers should know about Volunteers for Peace?

I think it is important that volunteers recognize that we are not a touristy experience. When you go on one of our projects, you will be living like the locals do. This often means rustic accommodation. It is difficult to get to know the local community if every evening you disappear to an exclusive hotel; it creates a barrier. By having our volunteers live with the locals, they gain the communities respect and come back with a much deeper understanding of the culture.

In your role, how do you help first time volunteers prepare for their meaningful international experience?

I am their main point of contact prior to their departure. Sometimes it’s as simple as answering packing questions, calming down nervous parents, or guiding volunteers through purchasing visas, health insurance, or flights. I also spend a lot of time working with volunteers to ensure that the project they picked will match the type of experience they wish to have.

Your academic background is in Environmental Studies and International Development, how do you apply that knowledge to your work in International Program Support?

Part of our mission is to provide environmentally sustainable volunteer projects. By combining international development with environmental studies, I am more adept to ensure our projects have minimal environmental impacts.

Hiking in the Swiss Alps

Elizabeth leading a group on a hike in the Swiss Alps

You spent a summer volunteering in Kenya with Volunteers for Peace, what was the most memorable part of that experience?

I had been traveling around East Africa for two months prior to volunteering in Kenya. The volunteer experience was the highlight of my entire trip! After two months of constantly relocating and staying in hostels, I had felt like there was a barrier that kept me from getting to know the local communities. Volunteering broke down this barrier by allowing me to live with a family in the community, be honored with the opportunity to experience their way of life, and really feel like I made concrete relationships.

Based on your experience, what is the best advice you can give those who are interested in applying to a Volunteers for Peace program?

I think our past volunteers put it best. Be open minded and prepared to have your life impacted!

You joined the Volunteers for Peace team in Spring of 2014, what has been your biggest accomplishment in the past year?

Anytime I get to lead or join one of our projects feels like an accomplishment. I am constantly helping volunteers prepare for their trip, and being able to accompany them on these trips allows me to see the results of all my hard work.

Tourists at a site in Vietnam

Elizabeth sharing some laughs with new friends in Vietnam

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job with Volunteers for Peace?

Since I spend time talking to almost all our volunteers, I feel connected to them and their experiences. With volunteers in over 100 countries, I truly care about what is happening in each of those countries.

Promoting global peace through cultural understanding. That is our main mission and I can truly say I feel this everyday.