Workcamps, Skills Toolkit for Personal Development: How to Benefit from Workcamps

by Yaryna Kobryn –

Workcamps with their peak time in summer appear to be the highlight of vacation for many young people – the excitement of travel, exploring another country, meeting new people from all corners of the world, seeing the sunsets in different places and taking on the experiences the one never tried before – the blend of experiences create an explosive mixture of impressions to remember long after summer is gone. However, besides astounding memories to bring back home, you as common workcamp volunteer can get equipped with an entire toolkit of skills gained, either by intent or unconsciously, during the workcamp.  This article will lead you across the top skills which workcamp voluntary experiences offer you, as well as present the strategies you can use to enhance acquisition of the given skills.

Skill #1: Global Mindset

Why is it important? Global mindset boosts critical thinking, empowers curiosity, enhances creativity and simply makes you better aware of current realities in a global context.

The diversity of the team of volunteers on the workcamp, as well as the fact of traveling abroad itself, implies gaining a broader perspective on a great range of topics and issues. The immersion into the other cultures and viewpoints, expanded knowledge of the multiple topics, the acceptance of different ways to do even the most common things like cooking food or doing hair – all of this contributes to global mindset.

On the workcamps, we spent long evening hours by the campfire talking about everything in the world – education, society, politics, religion, economy etc. We raised all the possible stereotypes – and let them be crashed. We discussed our history from the perspective of other countries.  We praised good things about others just to get to know how many issues other societies face, as well.  We were vigorly discussing the questions no one could ever find the answers to. And, most importantly, we even came to change our positions in some aspects. That is how global mindset shapes, gradually integrating into your own thinking as the areas of your knowledge expand and the number of your cross-cultural experiences grows.

Strategies to Improve:

  • apply active listening – you might learn much more then when you only speak trying to prove yourself right 
  • turn off any judgmental opinion or position while discussing certain issues with others
  • encourage your curiosity – ask about the aspects or issues you feel interested in.

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Skill #2:  Self-awareness

Why is it important? Self-awareness, or understanding oneself, helps to see one’s own capacities, talents, and aspirations, creating a better vision for future path in life and career. 

How well do you know yourself? How do your friends define you? Do you know how you would react in the cases of tiredness, extreme attention, confusion? What would you claim about your values, social, moral and ethical positions? Would you consider yourself funny, decisive, smart, caring? Many of such labels can be shattered and fallen apart the first minute you step out of your comfort zone, your usual environment – which is what happens when you travel abroad going for the workcamp.

In the everyday environment, our behaviors are vastly shaped by the context, just as interests and opinions are impacted by the people we interact with the most. Our comfort zone is strictly set with the boundaries based on our routine, habits, daily interactions. But when all of this world of yours starts looking smaller and smaller in the distance from the plane window until it finally disappears from sight, you are left with nothing but yourself (in a good sense, just to mention))).

When you travel to a different place, leaving behind the known environment, you are given the freedom to be whoever you want. On the workcamp, you get a chance to express yourself, prove yourself, position yourself in any way you would think of. And by saying that I do not mean pretending to be someone else – no, it’s rather about looking at yourself from different perspective and discovering some other aspects of one’s own personality. Do not limit yourself by what you think you know about yourself.  Give a chance to find your inner features and talents – by being open to new experiences, trying something new, and reflecting on how you are perceived by others.

Strategies to Improve:

  • reflect on your emotions, feelings, and behaviors by looking for inner reasons
  • ask yourself why you react to a particular situation in a certain way and what it can tell you about yourself
  • try to think whether there are any behaviors or features you would like to adopt or change

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Skill #3: Foreign Language Comprehension

Why is it important? There is probably no point to explain the utmost significant of the knowledge of English as a global and universal language which can come handy in many aspects, from better career prospects up to nice acquaintances and networking with the foreigners.

The diversity of English speakers and informal atmosphere of the workcamp is a perfect place to advance your comprehension of foreign languages. Going to the workcamp, you are sure to discover a multicultural space of diverse languages and accents, as if a Tower of Babel itself. My workcamp experiences, for instance, were followed by intense dive in the diversity of languages: I spoke Russian with the volunteers from Georgia and Russia and English with the rest of them while listening to immense amount of Czech (which was recognizable in some ways as it is similar to Polish, which I learnt before) and Spanish (since we had 3 Spanish volunteers talking non-stop with each other:D). Likewise, the workcamp in Belgium was accompanied by French, English, Spanish, and Dutch.

 I studied English since my early age, however, I can firmly state that over 10 years of partly passive learning seemed less efficient to me than the first 2-week workcamp abroad. Have you heard about the notion of a language barrier? The moment you know you have to speak, but all your body feels frozen and numb, your brain – seemingly lifeless at the attempt to get out the appropriate English word you used to know before(at least that’s what I felt myself:D)? Well, workcamp is a place you get your language barrier completely smashed. As you find yourself in the team of people who are all from different countries, you have no way out. You either speak English…or you speak English.

Yes, at first you stumble across words, get lost in your thoughts and forget even the most basic things of grammar and lexis. But as long as you make yourself understood, as long as you keep trying to express yourself, you gradually improve – both at your English and at your confidence in speaking it. 

Strategies to Improve:

  • don’t be shy to speak or ashamed of making mistakes
  • if you cannot speak English much, start (or involve in) a conversation by asking some questions
  • speak as much as you can!

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Skill #4:  Interpersonal Skills, Communication

Why is it important? The skill of communication is a key to everything – new discoveries, solving problems, expressing oneself, getting what you want, and simply enjoying interactions with others.

All people are different, that’s the fact. Every single person has one’s own mindset, habits, behaviors, ways of interaction and so on and so on. Now add cultural and ethnical diversity to all of this – and here you have a common workcamp team incorporating a challenge of finding common language with all of them.

Perhaps I have never been a part of a more diverse group of people than on the workcamps. Imagine a retired British, an Italian teenager-atheist who just graduated school, a French Phd student and two Spanish guys who don’t study at all, a German future forester and a freelance photographer from Azerbaijan. And here you are, puzzling yourself how you can possibly become one team.   

Nevertheless, it often comes to happen that the people you spent only 2-3 weeks on the workcamp with become so close to you that you simply cannot hold your tears while saying goodbye at the end of the project. You look back at the first days of the workcamp, when everyone felt unease speaking to each other – and wonder how these people who were absolute strangers not a long time before turn into people you know you will deeply miss.

Therefore workcamp can become a powerful platform for you to practice your interpersonal skills and art of communication while giving a chance to broad networking and deep connections.

Strategies to Improve:

  • ask questions (most people commonly love talking about themselves:D)
  • be genuinely interested in other people, their opinions, hobbies and lives.
  • apply active listening

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Skill #5:  Problem-Solving and Stress Management

Why is it important? The ability to face difficulties and manage successfully stressful situations will definitely come in handy in many ways throughout lifetime, helping to overcome difficulties and life problems.

Surely workcamps are a lot of fun and memorable experiences. However, if you expect everything to go smoothly, you better think again:D Unexpected situations can happen during both the travel and workcamp itself. Getting lost in places, missing planes/busses/trains, losing things, getting into a conflict with another volunteer, facing technical issues with devices or problems at accommodation – it is by far not an extensive list of what might possibly happen (or maybe nothing of it would happen at all – it is a matter of luck and chance). In any case, it is vital not only to have right expectations and attitude about your experience and potential problems, but stay alert and ready to react to them accordingly and solve them instantly.

Strategies to Improve:

  • don’t stress out or panic – it will not solve the problem, but damage your well-being
  • try to rationally approach the issue from different sides (including the other party of the conflict/issue, if there is any)– weight the pros and cons of every possible decision instead of acting impulsively
  • don’t be afraid to ask for help and support (even the strangers – as my experience proves, kind people are everywhere to help out in trouble)

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