For many people, taking part in the International Cooperation and Development Fund’s volunteer programs has turned out to be a life-changing experience. While some found new carrier opportunities, others gained new perspectives on life.
Cheng Kun-mu, who manages the fund’s project in Nicaragua, said that he initially joined the agricultural volunteer program in Panama when he completed his graduate degree focusing on plant pests and diseases more than a decade ago.
While he was working in a mountain town near the border, coffee bean prices slumped and he decided to help local farmers change their principal agricultural export from coffee beans to bananas.
Using his expertise in pest and disease control, he helped more than 60 farmers manage their new banana plantations.
About a year later, with the help of the local agriculture department, the town refined the quality of its bananas and exported them.
The project was later emulated in Nicaragua, one of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, where it was received with equal enthusiasm.
After the initial excitement fades, volunteers committed to long-term programs might experience a period of confusion, during which they might doubt their self-worth, Cheng said.
However, that was when he learned to look at things from other people’s perspectives, he said.
“Instead of considering myself an expert only there to help them, I learned to see myself as their friend, understand how they feel as well as identify their problems,” Cheng said.
He encouraged fellow Taiwanese to participate in volunteer work abroad to promote Taiwan.
“If you are willing to do that, there would be more people who know about Taiwan and support it,” he said.
Taipei Medical University Hospital International Healthcare Center vice executive officer Yu Ying-ju also had a unique experience when she took part in the fund’s international volunteer program.
“The volunteer experience was life-changing for me,” she said.
She did not grow up dreaming of living abroad and planned to live a stable life, Yu said.
However, in 2011, she joined a volunteer program in Palau after having worked as a nurse for six years, hoping to help more people with the skills and experience she had gained.
She had come across an advertisement by the fund and remembered what a former schoolmate had told her about being a volunteer, Yu said.
In Palau, she was assigned to an elementary school with scarce resources and found that the students only had canned meat for lunch.
Concerned that a lack of vegetables and variety in their diets could lead to malnutrition, obesity and other health problems, she initiated a program with the fund’s agriculture experts to grow vegetables on campus.
They improved the soil on campus and grew vegetables to ensure that the students kept a more balanced diet.
The program, which was well-received, was later introduced to other schools.
Thank to the program, some of the students developed an interest in agriculture and said that they wanted to learn to grow vegetables in Taiwan, she said.
After leaving Palau, Yu studied nursing in the UK, before visiting Burkina Faso for an international healthcare project.
Now she is pursuing a doctoral degree in public health.
Many years after leaving Palau, she revisited it once and saw that the program that she initiated was still ongoing, Yu said.