Oliver Hagan - Director of Applications & Outreach - Co-Founder
From Vermont originally, Oliver is a proud graduate of the University of Oregon where he received his Bachelors of Art in Journalism and Communication. He is a co-founder of VACorps and has spent his entire professional career working within the field of international education.
How did you become involved with Volunteer Adventure Corps?
In 2005, I graduated from the University of Oregon and decided to take a break from academia before applying to law school. I packed my bags with the intention of traveling abroad while working as a PADI SCUBA instructor. I was on the verge of booking a flight to Grand Cayman when Sean Walpole, one of my good friends from my study abroad experience at the University of Cape Town, convinced me to return to Cape Town and work at a dive shop he had just opened. I booked a flight to South Africa with the expectation that I would only stay for three months.
During my first month as an instructor in Cape Town, I taught two energetic 20-year-olds from Denmark to SCUBA dive. They were participating in a local volunteer program and were having a terrible experience because their program was administered from Denmark and they were effectively without any local support. They became regulars at the dive school and we took them on numerous adventures throughout the city. I think it was journalistic curiosity (I have a BA in journalism) that led me to search for other programs that the young Danes could have chosen as an alternative to their disappointing program. To my surprise, I discovered that there were only a handful of volunteer programs and no internship programs in existence at the time.
Because we absolutely love Cape Town, Sean and I decided to create an internship program that offered strong in-country support and regular cultural excursions. We hosted our first participants in 2006 and nearly nine years later, we continue to grow and evolve as an organization based exclusively in the beautiful city of Cape Town.
During your first experience in Cape Town you were a junior in college studying abroad. Why did you choose Cape Town?
I befriended a group of South African students in December of 2002 while working at a restaurant in Vermont during my winter break from college. The South Africans studied at the University of Cape Town (UCT)and were participants of Work USA, a program that sends South Africans to the States to work jobs at ski resorts and summer camps. As our friendship evolved, they enchanted me with their many stories of South Africa’s vibrant culture and urged me to visit them in Cape Town. Upon my return to school, I promptly applied to study abroad in Cape Town with CIEE and started my first semester at UCT in July of 2003. The rest is history!
This chance encounter with a group of South African students set off a sequence of events that led me down the path of an expatriate. This is one of the many thrilling joys of your early 20s; seemingly inconsequential encounters can completely alter the direction of your life and career.
How many interns does Volunteer Adventure Corps typically have in Cape Town at a time?
We normally host around 30 to 70 participants in the program at any given time. Our participation levels normally peak around the middle of July. Our program customizes placements according to a participant’s schedule, meaning that you are not bound to a fixed set of dates.
How do you screen your applicants?
Our application process requires candidates to submit more detailed information as they progress through the various stages of the application process. We require thoughtful answers and only invite quality candidates to proceed with a final application submission. We also make certain that applicants express a genuine interest in learning more about South African culture.
What are three characteristics of the ideal internship applicant?
The applicant has an open-minded and enthusiastic approach to the prospective internship experience. The applicant displays an interest in South African culture and wants to participate in as many program activities as possible. The applicant is willing to step outside of his or her comfort zone.
How do you help interns who are feeling homesick?
We actively communicate with program participants and are very skilled at identifying homesickness. We do not experience too many cases of homesickness because there is no language barrier, and Cape Town is such an exciting city with a relatively first world infrastructure. Communication platforms, like Skype and Facebook, allow interns to contact friends and family at any time of day if necessary. We also encounter minimal cases of homesickness because of the family-like atmosphere that is present in our program. Participants arrive and depart our program throughout the year and the more established interns always do an excellent job of giving our newest interns a very warm welcome.
Many of your alumni reference the “family” they had in Cape Town. What do you do that creates this special atmosphere?
Through both our weekly schedule of program activities and program housing arrangement, we have created a very social environment that makes our participants feel like they are members of a big family. This is the single-most underrated aspect of our program—you will instantly feel welcome and establish a sense of place within a community of fellow interns. You will meet many people and make MANY great friends as a participant of our program (see GoAbroad program reviews). Independently arranging an internship in South Africa will come at the expense of your social experience, which can make or break the ultimate outcome of your time overseas.
How do you ensure the security of your participants while abroad?
We place a premium on participant safety and security. All VACorps interns are required to participate in an arrival orientation, where safety and security is discussed at length. We have a 24-hour emergency contact number and we also give all interns an emergency numbers pocket card that includes the personal cell numbers of our entire staff. Participants are urged to phone us whenever they encounter the slightest challenge that concerns their safety and security. Our participants live in safe and secure program accommodation.
Your internships vary from conservation work in aquariums, to flying around the country shooting videos. How do you create these unique internships?
This is our specialty! We only offer internships in Cape Town and our entire team is based in the city. Our dedicated program staff actively searches for engaging internship opportunities that will appeal to our candidates. We personally meet with the directors of the organizations we work with to gain a detailed description of their ideal intern. We also ask all applicants to describe their ideal internship. During the placement process, we carefully match the needs of the host organization with the needs of the participant.
What is the best advice you can give students who are interested in applying to Volunteer Adventure Corps for an internship?
“There’s no passion to be found playing small— in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” Nelson Mandela.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job with Volunteer Adventure Corps?
Watching our program alumni forge successful careers is the most wonderful aspect of this job. Our alumni are eager to share news of their professional success with us, particularly when mention of their internship experience helped them get the position. An internship in South Africa creates a very interesting talking point during a job or graduate school interview and it’s always wonderful to learn that we are able to help our alumni advance in their careers as a result of their time in our program.
You’re an avid surfer, and Cape Town is pretty famous for its waves. Where is your favorite place to take interns who are interested in trying out surfing?
I love teaching our interns to surf, and Cape Town is a watersports paradise! Throughout the year, we schedule Friday surf days at Muizenberg to introduce VACorps interns to this wonderful sport! Muizenberg Beach is a great place to learn to surf because the wave is very gentle and the beach is accessible by train. The winter months (May through August) are the best time of year to surf.
Are there any new and exciting placements with Volunteer Adventure Corps on the horizon?
In the coming years, we will be launching speciality programs that offer an additional layer of supervision and support. We have plans to design programs in the fields of marine conservation, film production, and entrepreneurship. We will likely launch our new programs in conjunction with our academic partners.