About a year ago I was living in New York, working a job that I liked but found incredibly exhausting. I was passionate about the industry that I was in, but it wasn’t in my academic field. I realized that I needed to make a change and suddenly couldn’t stop thinking about traveling. At some point I began to appreciate that I was in a valuable position: I was not concerned about moving up in the hierarchy at my current company, and as such this might be my last chance to take a career break without the consequences being too steep for my professional aspirations. I started to do research into long-term travel opportunities that would allow me to truly immerse myself in a different culture. I decided that I wanted to be more than a tourist and began looking into volunteer and work-away opportunities.
I chose to go to Romania because I wanted easy access to both Eastern and Western Europe. Fortunately, IVHQ’s local team had stellar reviews and a socially conscious, sustainable service program. For me it was very important that my presence did not take jobs away from the community, and that my impact would last. I was vaguely aware that communism had impacted Romania but I knew little else about the mysterious country. It sounded almost fictional. I downloaded Dracula on my kindle and felt like I was doing research. A few months passed and I packed my life into a backpack bigger than most of my body, moved out of my apartment in Manhattan and got on a plane. I actually started traveling around the Middle East a couple of weeks before arriving in Bucharest, so I was too busy to be nervous. From the airport I took a five-hour train ride from Bucharest deep into Harghita County, Transylvania. This is where I had my first taste of the countryside. I remember thinking that it looked like something out of Game of Thrones; a sparse fairytale backdrop dotted with stray dogs and horses. I felt as if I had accidentally stepped through a portal when I boarded the train and half expected to see Hogwarts nestled between the mountains around every turn.
I was so distracted by the view that I almost missed my train stop. All of the train stations in Romania are labeled in Romanian, however the northern counties are almost exclusively referred in Hungarian by locals and in conversation. Most of Transylvania used to be part of Hungary before the First World War. The group of people who remained there are known as the Székely. I learned about Székely culture from my hosts and friends who I met through the program. Discovering different cultures was one of the most important reasons that I decided to take such a long, immersive trip.
For the first month of my program I was placed in a town called Gheorgheni, where the entire municipality was home to fewer people than the undergraduate population at my alma mater! Everyone knew each other including my local coordinator, whose mother was my host. Living with her was one of the most rewarding parts of my entire experience in Romania. She was incredibly welcoming and surprisingly aware and accommodating of our cultural differences. We became quite close despite the language barrier, religious and generational differences between us. She cooked amazing meals for me from scratch everyday, often using vegetables from her own garden.
Teaching came naturally to me and I loved how welcoming all of the schools were. My students were curious, sweet and intelligent. I miss them all of the time and I still have all of the pictures that they drew for me. Leaving them was hard, but I really felt like I made a difference in their lives by broadening their experiences and scope of the world. It’s also extremely helpful for the kids to practice with natural English speakers. They improved exponentially by the time that I left, which was extremely rewarding. Their progress was especially impressive considering the fact that most of them spoke Hungarian at home while learning Romanian, English and sometimes German simultaneously.
I had planned on traveling around Europe for at least a month after leaving my Romania, so I focused on visiting cities like Bucharest and Brasov while I was in there. I explored Bran’s Castle and the Palace of Parliament, discovering the region’s rich history, art and architecture wherever I went. When I didn’t feel like getting on a train I spent time at local attractions like the Red Lake. A fellow volunteer and I were even able to horseback ride the Carpathian Mountains!
After my placement was completed I bought a Eurail Pass, which allowed me to utilize the train systems that connect the European continent. I moved west, traveling on overnight trains that took me to major cities fairly easily. I also used budget airlines like RyanAir to travel longer distances. Taking part in a volunteer program allowed me to extend my travel time significantly without breaking my limited budget. Fortunately the dollar is strong compared to the Romanian Lei, which made food and entertainment affordable and easy. The exchange rate favored me throughout almost all of Eastern Europe.
Volunteering takes commitment and requires a level of responsibility that doesn’t mesh with all types of travelers. My program worked for me because I have a strong worth ethic and approached my time in the community seriously. I prepared lessons every night for the following day. I came into the experience willing to work hard and keep an open mind. I strongly believe that every American should volunteer overseas at some point. I feel fortunate that I had the ability to do so at this point in my life. Until I underwent this experience I don’t think that I ever really understood what a privilege it is to have grown up speaking English. I’m proud of those two months and I fell like I’ve grown as a person as a result of this experience.
- Jenna Jaffe
Interested in knowing more about volunteering abroad in Romania? Check out the program page.