GoAbroad Interview

Katie Ott - Director of PED Ambassadors & Volunteers

Katie Ott - Director of PED Ambassadors & Volunteers

Katie first volunteered with Pangea Educational Development in 2011 where she developed a passion for improving sustainable education. She is a recent graduate from Michigan State University with a BA in Social Policy and Relations and an avid dancer, a quote-lover, and enjoys trying new recipes in her spare time. Starting as a chapter of PED at her university and serving as a volunteer trip leader, Katie recently relocated to Chicago where she will continue with PED as the Director of PED Ambassadors and Volunteers.

How did you become involved with Pangea?

I became involved with PED in the most random way possible, and I couldn't be more thankful. Four years ago, my freshman year of college, I met a girl on my floor and I told her that one day I would love to work for a non-profit. She started telling me about her friend, Drew Edwards, who co-founded an educational non-profit. Next thing I knew, she contacted him, he messaged me on Facebook, told me he had spoken with her and asked if I wanted to Skype and hear more about PED. We Skyped and the rest is history.

That week I spontaneously signed up for the summer volunteer trip, and a few months later I was flying to Uganda! Since then I have continued to stay involved with PED, interning and serving as a volunteer leader.

Volunteering with children in Uganda

Katie enjoying time with students outside.

What is the current population of students Pangea works with in Uganda?

There are four schools that Pangea partners with currently. One primary, two secondary, and a Remand Home. St. James Primary School, located in the Wakiso district, serves Nursery to Primary 7. Tooro High School, located in the Fort Portal region in the west, is also a private school consisting of over 220 students from Senior 1 to Senior 4. Awach Senior Secondary School, located in the Gulu region in the north, is a public school with over 200 students S1-S4. The final partner institute is the Gulu Remand Home, a juvenile remand home currently housing around 40 youth.

How do you screen your applicants?

The process for screening applicants to PED summer or winter volunteer programs is just an online application form. The application intends to help the organization better understand the interest and intentions of volunteers, make sure we understand their reasoning for going on this trip, and hopefully can gauge their level of commitment to the program. Usually applicants are screened by the Volunteer Coordinator and Co-Founders, or those designated  to review applications.

What is a typical day like for a volunteer in a Pangea program?

For summer volunteer trips, a typical workday involves a homemade breakfast; the group will head to the school in the morning and get there around 9am. We focus part of the day on the physical aspect--working on whatever project is at hand--and the other part of the day we focus on relationship building. Volunteers have the opportunity to chat with students in between their classes, maybe sit in on a class, talk with teachers, etc. We encourage volunteers to feel free to go sit with students during lunch or sit and talk during breaks.

At the end of the work day volunteers return to clean up, relax, and eat dinner. Reflections are led by team leaders every night in order to let volunteers unpack their thoughts from the day and help prepare them for their return home from the experience. The amazing thing about this program is how organic it is. Although that is a typical workday, sometimes students will want volunteers to join in their music and dance class. Those days may change up the schedule, but really allow volunteers to also volunteer their hearts and not just their physical work.

How do you help volunteers who are feeling homesick?

It is a team leader's or any leader's responsibility to reach out to anyone if they are homesick, uncomfortable, or nervous. Reflections really help volunteers unpack their thoughts by allowing everyone to feel comfortable talking about the emotions they are feeling, challenges they are facing, etc. But even with leaders, the volunteers themselves tend to really comfort one another. PED focuses on a family aspect, and really tries to establish that early on in volunteer meetings prior to the trip so that way members are more comfortable. 

Do you have extra-curricular activities that help your volunteers immerse with the local culture of Uganda?

By staying in the community and traveling through different parts of the country to each school, volunteers get to see the culture. Working at the school and having the accessibility for volunteers to interact with students and teachers allows them to ask questions, see different cultural interactions, eat the local food, etc. Some nights we eat-out at local restaurants and we designate an off-work day to take volunteers into town or to markets. We also include a safari trip to one of the national parks for each trip, for volunteers to see some of the other natural aspects of the country.

How do you ensure the security of your volunteers?

We do register all volunteers at the U.S. Embassy for security in case of an event. We strongly encourage volunteers to also purchase travelers insurance in case of a severe medical issue, flight cancellation, missing a flight, etc. We require volunteers to complete the traveler’s immunizations and also to take anti-malaria medication. We travel at all times with one of our native Ugandan Board members who help ensure safety and safe decisions. Volunteers will most likely stay at PEDquarters (PED's new volunteer compound) or at well-trusted hotels near the school.

Do you have plans of expanding programs in any way?

Quality of volunteers is desired over quantity. If we have volunteers who are passionate about PED's mission, word of mouth from our PED ambassadors has been crucial in the starting years. Now, as we move forward as an organization, we hope to be partnering with new schools in Uganda this next year and increase our volunteer numbers.

In the future PED is looking to have both general volunteer trips and also trips that are focused in specific interests/aspects of education such as health, professional development, etc.

What is the best advice you can give students who are interested in applying to a Pangea volunteer program?

The best advice I can give is ask questions! Take the time to learn about educational development, service, and Uganda. And don't be discouraged if you aren't a teacher or have experience in education. Education can be related to so many things, and even if you don't know education policies or anything about sustaining education, that's okay! PED looks for passionate people who want to make progressive changes and if your heart is in it your skill set doesn't matter! Everyone brings something different to the table and that’s what makes this program unique.

What’s the most fulfilling aspect of your job with Pangea?

Seeing others discover something--whether it is discovering something about themselves, the world, or education--it is the most gratifying thing. I love seeing volunteers engage with students or community members; I see this wholeness and sincerity in their interactions and it's very humbling. I am so thankful for the people I have met through PED, and having this awesome network of people who are passionate about the same things is incredible.