Leave for Change is a programme run by UNITERRA (World University Service of Canada [WUSC] and CECI [Centre for International Studies and Cooperation]) that sends volunteers on three-week assignments to developing countries. What follows is a conversation between me (I’m a librarian who has done two Leave for Change assignments [Nepal and Ghana]) and Juliene McLaughlin, a librarian who is preparing for her first assignment (Sri Lanka).
Note: This conversation took place on April 5, 2019. Sixteen days later, eight coordinated bomb attacks in Sri Lanka took the lives of 290 people. This was the deadliest incident in Sri Lanka since the 30-year civil war ended in 2009. It is too early to say how these developments will impact Juliene’s assignment in Sri Lanka.
Wayne Johnston (W.J.)
Tell me what you know about your assignment.
Juliene McLaughlin (J.M.)
It was just confirmed last week that I’ll be going to Sri Lanka. The position is called Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor. So, from what I understand, I’ll be working with another non-profit in Sri Lanka. The non-profit gives out microloans to women so women can be empowered and can start their own small business. I will be creating a plan to monitor how successful these microloans have been. I assume I’ll be talking to the women who have received these loans so I can see how impactful the programme has been. Or, at least, making a long-term plan for the non-profit to monitor and to evaluate the programme. That’s what I understand.
My first assignment was in Nepal. I was assigned to work with a fair trade organization. It was a national network of fair trade enterprises. A lot of them were run by rural women who had formed collectives and who were making fair trade products, handicrafts in a lot of cases. The assignment involved certification for fair trade and promoting the products internationally, that kind of thing. My second assignment was in Ghana. I was there to redesign the website for a national vocational training institute. The institution has schools all over the country and basically takes kids out of high school and gives them, I think, two years of vocational training, trades for the most part. Kind of an alternative to pursuing more academic post-secondary education. This institution ran all the testing for the students in a central location.
First of all, I got sick and lost the first week of the three weeks I was there. That was really stressful because I was down to two weeks to rebuild a website but it was also capacity development in terms of training somebody. So I worked with this young guy every day, and I thought we did a really good job. He learned a lot. We actually totally redesigned the site, and we showed the institution’s members an offline version of it. We did a presentation before their board, and everyone seemed really positive about the redesign. But you have to be prepared that sometimes you can’t complete your mandate as envisioned in the time you have.
Doing user experience (UX) work, we do a lot of studies and then hand off the recommendations. Sometimes the studies don’t get done. So I’m used to it, maybe.
What are your big hopes for the experience?
I want to do something more meaningful with my vacation days. I want to spend an extended amount of time immersed in another culture, and I don’t really think you can do that when you are just a tourist, a circumstance which is fine. But I want to get to know a culture more deeply. And I want to also grow personally because I’m sure that will happen. Of course, I can share my experiences, but I’m hoping the residents will have experiences to share with me, and I can take those stories back with me so I can grow as a person and can work more effectively. And I would like to do a meaningful project.
I would hope that the work I do, obviously in collaboration with the women, is something that is meaningful to them and that helps their mandate and their work. I’m actually really, really excited. I would never go to Sri Lanka just on a whim, and that’s exciting too, going to places you would never think of visiting before.
Sort of the corollary to your hopes, what are your fears?
I’m not really afraid of anything. I’ve been to other countries. I’ve lived in other countries before. I know it’s going to be different. I know there’s going to be a lot of uncomfortable situations, perhaps. And challenges. Learning a different culture and not being able to speak the language. All of that sort of stuff, but I’m not afraid.
It’s funny because your answer to the hopes question is very much along the lines of what I would have said. My big thing is to experience another culture not as a tourist. To live and to work with people. But my answer to the second question would be the exact opposite. I’m a big bundle of fear.
Are you? What are you afraid of? What’s the worst thing?
I don’t know. I think I’m just an anxious person. That’s part of how I would explain my fears. I think I fear social isolation. Feeling as though I’m not appreciated. And by “appreciated,” I don’t mean I want you to value the fact that I’ve come here. I guess the fear is that I would be resented. This person from a wealthy country coming in. “Oh, you know it all,” that kind of thing. There could be resentment, and therefore, I’d be isolated. That was never the case. People were just wonderful in both Ghana and Nepal. I think I paid too much attention to travel advisories.
All these things about risk of violent crime, risk of disease, risk of eating the wrong food. They just fill you with all kinds of fears, which, in retrospect, I really regret because I think the more cautious you are, the less you experience. So, in retrospect, if I could do some things again, I’d disregard the advisories and would just go for more things.
It’s funny you say that because I did see a recent travel advisory about some political and civil unrest in the northern part of Sri Lanka. I’ll be in the southern part, but still the advisory was a red flag. There are some potentially scary things happening. I’m okay with that fact, I guess.
How do you think this experience might change your perspective on librarianship?
That’s interesting because, obviously, the work that I’m going to be doing is not necessarily typical librarianship. But since I do UX work, this assignment could potentially be quite meaningful to my work. Especially right now, here, we don’t do a lot of long-term strategic planning. It’s sort of “Okay, now we’re going to do this project. And then whatever comes up next, we’re gonna do that project.” I’ve been thinking about being more strategic, with a long-term view of what we should be doing with projects. Doing some research beforehand about some long-term monitoring and evaluation might help me.
And also, I think getting a cultural perspective will always help, if not necessarily in practical everyday terms. I can’t anticipate what the experience is going to be, but I’m open to it, whatever it may be.
Wayne Johnston, Research and Scholarship Librarian, University of Guelph. In addition to his Leave for Change assignments, Wayne has also had international experience working in Geneva, Switzerland; Zagreb, Croatia; and various sites in Bolivia. Wayne can be reached at wajohnst [at] uoguelph.ca
Juliene McLaughlin, User Experience Librarian at the University of Guelph, engages with library users in a variety of different ways with the goal of bridging the gap between library staff and library users and enriching the overall user experience. Juliene can be reached at mclaug01 [at] uoguelph.ca.