GoAbroad Interview

Vanessa Randon - Program Manager

Vanessa Randon - Program Manager

Originally from Johannesburg and schooled in Grahamstown, Vanessa’s family lives in the small town of Plettenberg Bay. She has an undergraduate degree from the University of Cape Town in Marine Science and a Postgraduate degree in Physical Oceanography. After finishing her studies, she worked as a PADI scuba diving instructor in the Bahamas and then moved to Mozambique, where she also lived and worked as an instructor for a year.

As a University of Cape Town grad and Johannesburg native, how did you originally get connected with VACorps?

I first found VACorps through Scuba Diving actually. I emailed Sean as a Dive instructor looking for some part time teaching work. VACorps was planning a trip to Mozambique and he needed someone to help teach some courses. I fit the bill. Thirty Open Water scuba certifications later, a ten day trip to Mozambique, and I haven’t left!

Visiting Cape Point, South Africa

Vanessa (pictured on left) with VACorps intern Rachael Healy at Cape Point

What does your role as Programs Manager for VACorps look like on a typical day?

Gosh, that’s quite a question. I chat to almost all VACorps interns coming into the country. So, that means upwards of 100 emails a day. I source and place about half of the interns in their sites (Andrew and I are the placement team), which means contact with 100 plus sites regularly, plus new sites every day. I help organize trips for the interns, we work on activities for them every week. I help source housing and meal plans, and help with visas and flights. I also respond to questions and support needs from interns on the ground as well.

I’m also Program Manager, which means I am in charge of all the weekly planning. That’s flights in and out of the country, airport collections, orientation, Red Bus schedules, and initial meeting scheduling. A day is not a day without emails, post-it notes, two white scheduling boards, colored pens, and a lot of highlighters!

Internships abroad often impact a participant’s future career and can change their worldview. How do you make sure students who apply to VACorps are ready for these life-changing experiences?

Hiking in Silvermine Nature Reserve, South Africa

Hiking Silvermine

I always say that an intern will leave this country feeling one of two ways, 1) having been changed completely, touched by Africa, and by this city; grown up and eyes opened to possibilities, travel, culture, people, and adventure. Either that, or 2) they will go home with a greater appreciation for where they come from and for their home, friends, and family. They will be glad to be going back, they will remember and appreciate their time here, but they will be ready to carry on the lives they left. Wiser yes, but 100 percent happy to be who they are.

Either way is pretty special I think. No one has ever rushed home, hoping to put South Africa and their experience behind them. I think the vetting process happens online, participants choose this program, we don’t choose them. It takes a unique individual to feel drawn to the program and all that we offer. They then have to pass through our application process. Thomas does a very good job of finding out who has what it takes, and who suits this program. Once he does that, the placement team matches the intern’s goals and their personality to a unique site, a site that we know personally, and can see if a candidate would be well suited. Once we have everything set-up and in place, we then wait and watch the magic happen naturally.

Your Academic background is in Marine Science and Physical Oceanography, and you have been a PADI scuba diving instructor, are you able to apply this knowledge and these skills to your work with VACorps?

I think so. I think that it is my past that brought me here, my education that allowed me to become a thinker and a problem solver, and my unique sense of adventure; that not only relates to the interns traveling from all over the world to be here, but allows me to fit into an office of adventurers, travelers, and explorers (the staff). I am able to still instruct some of our interns on the weekend if they are interested in learning how to dive too!

Elephants in the Garden Route, South Africa

Vanessa (pictured 6th from the left) on a VACTravel trip with Elephants in the Garden Route

One of the common challenges faced by participants when undertaking an internship abroad is coping with culture shock. How does VACorps assist? 

It all starts when they are at home and they apply to the program. They pass through the application process which showers potential candidates in reading material, videos, testimonials, and articles.

We then have two Skype calls, one with Thomas (a Canadian turned African),and then a Skype chat with the support team (myself or Anna). At this point the prospective interns have received some really candid information about what to expect. They can also chat with past interns, possibly from their part of the world. We feel the interns are nearly ready before they arrive.

Once here, we spend about three days with orientating all of the interns to Cape Town and to VACorps, and then finally at their site. It’s only after that, that we leave them on their own to find out about the city for themselves.

I also think what is unique about VACorps is that interns arrive at all different times of year, so when they move into their housing, they will have a real mix of old and new housemates, and we find the camaraderie pretty special. They all help each other adjust.

How many interns typically participate in your programs each year?

Gosh I am not too sure on the numbers, over 200 a year for sure though.

What is the best piece of advice you can give prospective interns who are interested in applying to an VACorps program?

Always choose adventure. Seriously, never say no, if someone asks you to hike a mountain with them, do it. See a play, do it! Swim with sharks, join a church service, drink a local wine, do it, do it, do it (safely of course!).

How do you stay in contact with your alumni? Do you offer post internship services?

Not particularly, all interns choose to keep checking out the newsletter and staying in contact via social media. We ask some interns to represent the program back home, or possibly answer some questions from potential candidates. We offer references and connections to them across the world. But, they certainly are not required to keep in touch if they don’t want to. Almost all past interns choose to chat to new incoming candidates though; its wonderful to watch.

Surfing lesson sin South Africa

Vanessa (bottom row, second from the left) during a VACorps Friday surfing activity

You’ve been with VACorps for five years, what has your biggest achievement since 2010? What goals do you have for this year?

I would like to say VACTravel. When I started here VACorps led trips to Mozambique, which were fantastic. Since then, I have helped plan and run VACTravel, which has led five trips on the Garden route, three trips to Mozambique, four trips to the Wild Coast for the annual Sardine run, numerous Mozambique trips, and our most recent addition, Botswana and Victoria Falls. We have shared this fantastic continent (not only here in Cape Town) with over 200 VACorps interns and friends. It’s a pretty fantastic feeling getting to share the adventures with them.

I think my biggest goal is to see the staff at VACorps grow, and our processes develop. We have a fantastic staff, all contributing to the welfare of the interns. Using that, adapting, updating, makes VACorps unique as well.

We can change depending on the need of each individual intern, and we can support a thousand different interests. No one intern ever has to have the same experience, we like to stretch and mold to include hundreds of different interests and goals.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job with VACorps?

I love being involved when a student reflects on their time here, and they, themselves notice a change. I also really love showing off the city of Cape Town, and seeing it for the “first time” through their eyes. I am very proud of that!