In the past few years, Colombia has emerged as a popular destination for tourists, backpackers, and expats alike. While the number of visitors rises steadily, this country can still be seen as a complex, misunderstood destination and the subject of negative stereotypes. Those who do remote work and volunteer abroad have an opportunity to better understand their host country and get past these stereotypes.
Venture with Impact is a social enterprise operating in Medellín that arranges “workations.” These working vacations consist of accommodation, workspace, and skills-based volunteering for professionals who want to experience another country for a month or more. VWI also hosts participants in Peru and soon will expand to Thailand and Portugal. A few “Venturers” shared their perspectives on Medellin during a month of remote work and partnering with local organizations.
Impressions of Colombia
The common perception was one typical of many outsiders: the danger, instability and corruption portrayed on the news and in movies. Unfortunately, Colombia’s reputation is still overshadowed by its past. But spending time here is the best way to change that image.
Robert is a teacher hailing from Los Angeles and is participating in Venture with Impact alongside his wife, Tara. He notes that, “The impressions that I had about Medellin [before arrival] unfortunately stemmed from common perceptions. You would see or hear in the news or movies what a dangerous city Medellin was, but I’ve never felt more comfortable in a place. I haven’t experienced anything that would feed into that narrative.”
For Robert, living and working among friendly Paisas left a lasting impression. “It’s a place I’d love to return to, which is not often that I have that feeling!”
Venture with Impact focuses on productive, sustainable volunteering opportunities for participants to contribute their professional skills. They work with local partners to identify needs and match them with participants’ experience or knowledge for a meaningful exchange.
The participants credited their service as a way to break out of their comfort zones, build empathy and cultivate relationships with Medellin locals, and contribute new strategies and ideas to their host organizations. While those who volunteer abroad serve according to their existing professional skills, the opportunity to apply them in a completely new situation allowed for personal and professional growth and learning.
Bill, a lawyer from Alabama, taught human rights workshops for staff at two nonprofits in Medellin. He said, “I think it’s good to get outside of your comfort zone. I had the opportunity to teach about international human rights. I was able to help the organizations I worked with learn more about [human] rights to apply to their work.”
Robert, the teacher from Los Angeles, described his volunteer experience teaching curriculum and behavior workshops and coaching volunteer English teachers, “My project is to provide strategies that I have used in my own classroom and have them practice and build that community within their classroom environments to increase efficiency and levels of buy-in, and to win hearts and minds. I have tried to demonstrate activities that get to the heart of the learner, building social empathy within the classroom. I understand that I come from a place of privilege and I also have to be humble and empathetic to other people’s stories and struggles and take from them.”
Why Go Abroad?
Moving abroad can be a daunting idea – so, why did these professionals do it? For some, it was as simple as the opportunity to live and work in another country and culture, to do something different. For others, it was a chance to grow and gain perspective. Venture with Impact provided them with the structure (housing, internet connections for work, outings and field trips) as well as a community. VWI participants have weekly meetings to catch up, discuss cultural differences and other aspects of the experience.
Robert explained some of his professional takeaways. “Learning more about Colombia and spending a long period of time there has helped me to compare and better understand the issues within the United States and what I can do [as a lawyer] when I return.”
Shelda, a teacher from Houston, was happy to build her coaching skills through the workshops she designed for local English teachers. “In the future I want to be an instructional coach, so it was good practice to mentor or coach someone in the classroom. The reason why I decided to participate with Venture with Impact was the opportunity to become immersed in a different culture, experience life in a different city, a different country, and bring that experience back to my students in my classroom.”
On personal growth, Shelda noted, “Coming into the program, I know I wanted to work on being more outgoing. This was a great opportunity to develop the extroverted side of my personality.”
All three of these VWI Medellin participants fell in love with their host city, as one is inclined to do. But they didn’t mention the food, transportation or travel opportunities as factors. All in all, it came down to the people.
“You really get to know the soul of the city and soul of the people. The people have been incredibly nice, incredibly welcoming. I’ve met people that are open-minded, who are optimistic, who are hopeful and want to work for change,” Robert said.
About Venture with Impact
Venture with Impact participants vary widely in age and occupation, from teachers on summer break to code writers who can work from anywhere with an internet connection. The program is set up to allow professionals to balance their own work schedule with opportunities to volunteer abroad. It’s ideal for people who want to experience another culture and location, but may not have the time or flexibility to arrange it themselves.
Bill: “I never spent a significant time abroad before. I thought it would be really cool to not just go to another country, but go and have an impact. I thought about how I could use my time between jobs to better myself and better other communities. Venture with Impact appeals to the things that I care about – the opportunity to travel abroad and better myself, and also to make an impact.”
Shelda: “It was beneficial to have people here to know where to go, what to do. Having Venture with Impact as a guide made the experience more meaningful than if I would have come myself or with a group of friends…I didn’t feel like a tourist when I was here with VWI.”
Robert: “I appreciate the stepping stones provided by Venture with Impact to reach the city of Medellín. The community that Venture with Impact gathers is diverse, with people from many different backgrounds. To have those people come together and work as a collective, I think that’s big impact. The people that are selected for the program are open-minded, optimistic, hopeful and want to work for change. I’m blessed that I have this opportunity to share in whatever knowledge I have and expertise that I claim to have. I’m glad to be a part of it.”
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Brighid Carey lived in Colombia for nearly five years, mainly in Barranquilla, where she turned 90% costeña while managing a volunteer teaching program and playing rugby. She somewhat regrettably returned to the U.S. to pursue a Masters degree at SIT Graduate Institute, and misses Colombian juices, city buses and her friends dearly. She is currently supporting Communications and Partnerships for Venture With Impact.