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Volunteering in North Macedonia

Image of Abby volunteering

By Abby T. (YES Abroad 2022-2023, placed in North Macedonia)

There he was less than 10 feet in front of me. “Maybe someone might introduce him to me,” I thought. So, I kept watching and standing. The time continued to go by, and he was almost ready to leave. As he started to step away, I thought to myself, “I need to make a move.” So, I walked over.

This moment, in a way, describes my experience as a volunteer during my exchange.

From the time I applied to YES Abroad, I knew I would want a major portion of my experience to be dedicated to volunteering. I saw volunteering, then and now, as a great way to get involved in one’s community and, simultaneously, do some good. However, I envisioned the volunteering process to be somewhat automatic. I didn’t realize, in order to begin community service, it was going to have to be me who initiated it.

With my initial mindset, my first two months in North Macedonia were spent somewhat passively seeking out opportunities to volunteer. Emails were sent, but they rarely went further than that. I expected the chances to simply appear, rather than be created.

It wasn’t until I had a talk with my local coordinator during our monthly meeting that I realized nothing substantial would come from passive efforts. If I wanted to work with an NGO, it would be better to show up to their door. If I wanted to do a kind of service no one else was doing, I must be the one who starts it.

That message was thoroughly correct and equally daunting. The thought of me going to an NGO with my poor Macedonian language skills or organizing an event that would require collaboration with local strangers was intimidating. So, I started with the American Corner, an English library that also holds events, a collaboration between the U.S. Embassy and North Macedonia.

Image of Abby shaking hands at the American Corner

At that time, volunteering at the American Corner was a way for me to stay in my comfort zone.

Volunteer–but without fully integrating with my community. I pitched this idea, but thankfully, it was not completely supported. So instead, with the help of language classes and speaking to my classmates about their volunteering experiences, I decided to actively look for opportunities to volunteer. I met with people in-person. I called people. I asked my host family, classmates, and local coordinator for advice. From this, I found unique and meaningful places to volunteer. The process strengthened my initiative, taught me more about my interests, and introduced me to many members of my community in North Macedonia.

So, when the American Corner official volunteer program in the spring was announced, I knew I was ready to apply. This time, my motivation came from something entirely different. Through all the volunteering I did during the year, I found one of my greatest passions: creating opportunities for people from different backgrounds to come together and bond. And so, I filled out the application and received the volunteer position. Now, I got to help others organize their own events, assist in running the library, and meet outstanding people.

One of these outstanding people was James Rubin, the former Assistant Secretary of State for

Public Affairs under the Clinton Administration. After the event, he was speaking to people who worked at the Embassy, and I knew I couldn’t give up the opportunity to speak with someone so exemplary in my desired field. Even though I was completely intimidated, I used the skills of taking initiative that I had accumulated over my exchange, mustered my courage, and introduced myself.