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By Associate Editor Natalie Gates

Each year, VIU students pack their bags and board planes to immerse themselves in far away lands, unfamiliar cultures, and daunting experiences—all for the chance to learn something essential and help other communities. From Students Without Borders, to the Red Cross; from internships as part of course credit, to extracurricular placements, and beyond, the opportunities to work or volunteer abroad are immense.

One student, Jaxxen Wylie, just got back from Uganda with a big bag of perspective.

Wylie spent four months in a small village working on community outreach focused on sports and recreation as part of an international internship program for Aboriginal youth called the Victoria International Development Education Association (VIDEA). Before his departure, the second year criminology major was just as nervous as he was excited as the realities of living in a “third-world country” for the first time sank in. Thankfully, VIDEA prepared him and the 10 other Aboriginal Canadian students thoroughly.

Knowing the dark reality of “volunteer tourism,” Wylie was careful about his program choice. “I always wanted to go to Africa, but I didn’t want to just tour around,” he says. “When I saw the posting, I liked that it wasn’t just volunteer tourism, where the cause dries up as soon as the volunteers leave. This one was sustainable.”

Bendowi, population 60,000, is a small village surrounded by crops, crops…and more crops. It has one major market, and one refrigerator in the whole area, from which a vendor sells soft drinks to passer-by.

“They play a lot of soccer there, but balls are hard to come by compared to the average income,” he says. So, he focussed on creating after school sports, with soccer leagues for both youth and adults. They also began fundraising to build a proper soccer field.

During his time in Uganda, he and the other interns stayed in traditional style huts with no electricity, internet, or running water. “It was a learning curve for sure,” he says.

But what stood out about the village to Wylie was the strong sense of community that held it together. “They are a lot more open there and community orientated,” he says. “No one ever seemed to complain. Once I came back, I noticed a lot of complaining here.”

Many students had to trek long distances to make it to class every day. Wylie recalls one student who happily walked 10km every day, both ways.

The teaching staff at the primary school were all around Wylie’s age, in their early twenties. They worked 7 am to 11 pm, and earned on average two dollars per day. “I really noticed their dedication for work, the fact that they could still be so motivated.”

Wylie says his Criminology education helped with his adjustment and the culture shock. “In criminology, we try to understand how people’s upbringing has an impact on who they are,” Wylie says. “You have to take a step back and listen, because everyone’s got a different story of who they are, based on different perspective. You have to just sit there and listen without judgement.”

Near the end of Wylie’s internship, there was a soccer tournament where 1000 people came to cheer each other,  on emphasizing the importance of community and focus on relationships in the village.

VIDEA also has programs for non-Aboriginal students, as well as for graduates. While Wylie focused on development through recreation and sport, other focuses include agriculture, textiles, working with orphanages, and other administrative work. Read more about the program at <videa.ca>.

Now, as Wylie makes his way through his degree towards grad school, he plans to keep his eye out for more international programs and continue to gain experience, and perspective.

“If you have any interest in working overseas, absolutely give it a try,” Wylie says. “Realize you’re going into a whole new world. You will make mistakes and look foolish sometimes, but if you can laugh at yourself once in a while, you’ll love it.”

Now in her fourth and final year of a political studies major and journalism minor, Natalie has been on The Nav team for about two years. When she’s not brainstorming stories or studying, she’s usually on her yoga mat, going for a hike, listening to Springsteen, or fantasizing about what to cook for dinner.