Voluntourism will boost your career

Four reasons becoming a global citizen will help you at work.

By Rebecca Delaney, PE, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago September 22, 2014

We have heard for years employers are looking for "well-rounded" candidates. In the past it has meant a list of your hobbies/extracurricular activities on your resume, which many employers promptly gloss over. Today, it’s clear the world is getting smaller as technology advances, and we find ourselves collaborating with both our cubical neighbors and our coworkers on the other side of the world. Therefore, employers are looking for people who have experienced the world and can bring a global perspective helping us to recognize our common engineering challenges and find solutions together.

One way I have become a global citizen is through "voluntourism." The term describes trips encompassing both volunteer work and tourism. Here are the most beneficial skills I gained from my trips and how they have made me a more valuable employee.

1. Always be a student: It is of the utmost importance to always enter a new culture with sensitivity and respect. You must acknowledge you are there to teach and learn. This same principle applies in a rural Ugandan classroom as in the American boardroom. Ethnographic skills are defined as the ability to systematically study people or cultures: their communication style, social structure, and spirituality. These skills allow us to observe and absorb new surroundings, rather than judge and reject, which is particularly useful when trying to land new clients and understand their needs. We often forge ahead as though our way is the best, especially when in comparison to developing communities, when in reality we too have so much to learn.

2. Time is not money: During my first trip to Uganda, I planned activities starting at 10 a.m. When no one showed, I was introduced to the phrase "TIA," meaning "This is Africa." The phrase encompasses the laid-back attitude toward time, often a result of limited access to electricity (the day starts at sunrise) and limited modes of affordable transportation. This mind-set came as quite the shock for a high-strung American with a schedule to keep.

According to a New York Times article, the American diet is 34 GB a day. Our increased access to information has drastically reduced our ability to wait. The American standard is to monetize time, which puts exponential stress on daily productivity. However, the value of time cannot be explicitly expressed in dollars, and striving toward "working to live" not "living to work" will make us happier and more productive employees.

3. Listen with your eyes open: My work with Engineers Without Borders has been particularly enlightening regarding the intricacies of communication. For example, a community explicitly stated they wanted composting latrines to resolve waste management issues. We helped fund-raise and built a composting latrine. We returned to discover the latrine unused and a new septic tank installed instead. We didn’t realize the community was familiar with more modern waste infrastructure and that using outdoor latrines was not in line with cultural habits. Despite the best intentions, we learned communicating is more than listening; it’s observing the culture.

I had a client who stated he wanted a popular, new system in his building. Knowing it required significant maintenance and that the client struggled with regular maintenance, we were able to propose a slightly different system better suited to the company’s observed culture. We must always listen with our eyes open.

4. Never give up: Most recently I was in Uganda conducting workshops for the microfinance nonprofit, Umama. I met Joyce Nakanwagi. She was born into war and married a man who left her for dead after dousing her with boiling milk. Joyce survived but was struggling to raise her children alone when she applied for a loan to start a charcoal business. She learned to save money for school fees, knowing education is the best long-term means out of poverty. Joyce is persevering despite her circumstances. I get so caught up in the daily busyness of my job with meetings, deadlines, and emergencies that my dream of changing the world may often seems like a distant goal. However, I know every client meeting and project is an opportunity to have small influence toward greater change.

Experts in developing communities suggest all college graduates be required to spend time in the developing world. Voluntourism provides a global perspective that will allow us to engineer for the global population, not just the wealthiest nations, creating simple, affordable technologies that can be applied in any culture/context. With all this, who wouldn’t hire you?

Rebecca Delaney is a mechanical team leader at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s sustainable engineering studio. She is the 2014 ASHRAE New Face of Engineering, recognized for her industry leadership in mentoring students and sharing her passion for engineering around the globe. 


  1. Livermore, David A. Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006. Print. 
  2. "Ethnography." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 July 2014. Web. 24 July 2014.  
  3. Bilton, Nick. "The American Diet: 34 Gigabytes a Day." Bits The American Diet 34 Gigabytes a Day Comments. The New York TImes, 09 Dec. 2009. Web. 14 July 2014.
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  6. "Umama – Empowering Ugandan Women Economically, Socially, and Spiritually."Umama. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 July 2014. www.umama.org 
  7. Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Print.