Living abroad means having to come to terms with conflicting emotions. Like an equilibrist you try to find the balance between positive and negative emotions: on the one side, excitement, curiosity, courage, resourcefulness, desire to learn; on the other side, fear, unease, sense of inadequacy. And that happens because living abroad puts you in front of situations you have never experienced before and that is the moment when your autopilot stops working. You have to evaluate every novelty and usually your brain reacts in two ways: either welcoming the situation with enthusiasm or feeling in danger and triggering your spirit of survival that, inevitably, will start to scream: "Run away until you are on time".

As an avid traveller, I know this scenario very well and it never ceases to fascinate me. Of course it is what I also experienced in Denmark. In fact, there have been many situations that at the beginning did not look normal to me. Also because, let's face it, Denmark is a country full of contradictions. Some examples? One of the most important political parties is called "Venstre", literally "links", and it is from the right-wing. Danes do a lot of sports, but more than half the population is overweight. The day goes from 7 hours of light in the winter to 17 hours during the summer.

To handle the conflicting emotions you are inevitably dealing with, the best solution is to have the support of a local person. It will help you to understand the new culture, guide you in the new city and deal with any problem which might arise in your daily life. They know it well at AFS, a non-profit organization which offers intercultural learning experiences through study abroad as a high school student, gap year opportunities, volunteering, internships or teaching. In fact, anyone who is abroad through an AFS program can count on the support of a mentor who can help on any occasion.

AFS is present in more than 50 countries all around the world and Denmark is not an exception. Actually, AFS Denmark has an important role in my life as it is my receiving organization for my European Voluntary Service. That is why today I would like to introduce to you my mentor, Carina Kjølby Skalshøi. She is a 24-year-old student from Oure, who moved to Aarhus 3 years ago to study Psychology. Now she is about to take her Bachelor’s Degree and to start her Master. She also works with a child with an autism spectrum disorder and, as if it were not enough, she volunteers in AFS. I have known her for some months now but we never talked about her decision to become a volunteer and today it is the perfect time to do it.

Can you give some information about AFS for those who do not know it?

“AFS is a non-profit organization which was founded in the USA in 1947 by young Americans who had been volunteering as ambulance drivers during World Wars I and II. The founding belief was that it is possible to contribute to a more just and peaceful world if people from different cultures and countries meet and learn from each other. At the beginning, AFS focused on exchanging programs for students but now the organization offers a broader offer including also opportunities aimed at adults like European Voluntary Service projects and SENTIO projects. Something special about AFS is the fact that the majority of the people working for the organization are volunteers. Indeed, AFS can boast a network of 42,000 volunteers worldwide.”

What is your role at AFS?

“I volunteer in the local chapter of Aarhus and I am part of the 18+ team which means that we focus on projects for people with more than 18 years. This section is quite new and we are planning a lot of new activities for the future like different events for the incoming people so that they have the chance to meet each other and share their experience in Denmark. Moreover, we make sure that every incomer has a mentor and some of us are mentors themselves. We meet every second week and at the moment we are 5, but we are always eager to have new members in our team. So if it sounds interesting to you, do not hesitate to join AFS!”

How did your adventure with AFS start?

“Before being an AFS volunteer in Denmark I have been taking part to an AFS project abroad. It was during my gap year after high school. I had always been attracted by different cultures and I thought it was the right time to go abroad and explore a new lifestyle. Moreover, at that time I felt stuck in my routine and I needed some new stimuli. So I started to search on internet a cheap and a safe way to do so. That is how I discovered AFS. I immediately realized that I was sharing the same values of the organization and so there I was, setting off for Caracas in Venezuela.”

How was it to take part in an AFS project?

“I had been living in Caracas for 6 months. I was staying in a local family and working in a music school first and then, after having learnt a bit of Spanish, in an orphanage. Before leaving I could not imagine that my stay in Venezuela would have had such an impact on my life. So, after a year since my return in Denmark, in the summer 2016, I received an email from AFS asking me if I wanted to join their new team. I thought that it was my chance to make sure that others could benefit from the same amazing experience that I had and I jumped in immediately.”

What did you learn during your project in Venezuela?

“First of all, I learnt that by living in a different country you get much more than you do by simply travelling. You find yourself discovering a new mindset and that inevitably enriches you. Moreover, I learnt so much about myself. In fact, during my stay there I realized which are my values and now I take care of them. Finally, nowadays I appreciate my family and my friends more as I experienced what it means to be far away.”

Now you are on the other side of the bench. Is it common that the volunteers of AFS had a previous experience abroad through one of the projects of the organization?

“Yes, most of the time our volunteers went abroad with AFS but that is not a prerequisite. I think that taking part to an AFS project abroad is amazing, but at the same time you can learn a lot also by volunteering in a local chapter in Denmark. It is also a way to put into practice what you are studying. For example, we have a Communication group, which is in charge of the Social Media Marketing, where there are people who are studying that subject at the university and through AFS they get a practical experience.”

What else do volunteers gain from their experience at AFS?

“The most important thing according to me is inspiration. Most of the incomers are open-minded people who are eager to share their culture and it is really like landing in a new country without having to take the plane. Moreover, depending on your team you receive a training and develop new competences. You also get the opportunity to obtain the Global Competence Certificate (GCC) after taking part to a course which develops your intercultural competences and makes you ready to deal with cultural adjustment. Finally, there is a special category of AFS volunteers who deserve a mention: the guest families of our incomers. They are the backbone of the organization and they also gain a lot from this unforgettable experience: not only they learn another culture, but they also learn more about their own culture. Not the mention the fact that they obtain a new family member.”

What is your favorite memory connected to AFS?

“I have two good memories that I would like to share with you. The first one happened in Venezuela, more precisely in Petare, one of the biggest slum in South America. I am very fond of yoga and by meeting a local guy I took part to a yoga class for kids in Petare. It was an incredible experience and after the class I gave a look around and I watched some children playing with a kite. It occurred to me that even though they were very poor and living in a slum, they were like any other children in the world. It was so enlightening for me that now I have a tattoo in which there is also a kite.

The other memory is from a big AFS event which took place last March: all the people from the Secretary in Copenhagen and from all the AFS local chapters met for a day. We shared our experience and it  was very inspiring. In that moment I really felt part of something bigger and I will never forget that feeling.”

What are your three concepts that you associate with volunteering?

“My first word is ‘commitment’ and I think that it can be associated to any voluntary project because it is something that every volunteer experiences, no matter the sector in which he works. Then, I choose ‘intercultural learning’ which is more connected to AFS and to the other voluntary associations which are dealing with international exchanges. Finally, my third concept is ‘right direction’ because, according to me, AFS is really moving in the right direction."

Somewhere, I read the following sentence: “If you repeat your thoughts, they become an action. If you repeat an action, it becomes a habit. A repeated habit creates a fixed person. A fixed person becomes your destiny.” 

I think that it is very appropriate to Carina because her choice of becoming a volunteer and my mentor started from a recurrent thought which was making sure that someone else could have the same incredible experience abroad that she had. Afterwards, meeting me and talking about the challenges I was going through simply became a habit and by repeating that she became a fixed person, a supportive person and I am sure that will have an impact in her future life.

To get more information about AFS, visit their website or their Facebook page AFS Interkultur Danmark.

Are you curious about what is going on in Aarhus while the city is holding the title of European Volunteering Capital? Don’t miss the next stop of Genny Cabas' pilgrimage around the city.

Genny Cabas is an Italian taking a European Volunteering Service in Denmark. In February, she started working at Studerendes Frivillige Netværk (SFN) based at VIA University College and she finished her project on 1st October.

To know more about her and SFN visit the Facebook page SFN - Studerendes Frivillige Netværk.