Volunteering in Germany
Not Your Average OE
Aucklander Hannah McIntyre took time out between high school and university to work as a volunteer in Germany. We ask her about the German volunteer service, living in a new community, and meeting people from around the world...
Volunteering in Germany isn’t your average OE. What were you doing out there?
Well, I’d always planned on taking a gap year after school to do some travelling. Initially I had actually wanted to go to Africa and volunteer in an orphanage or a school. But I soon realised that it would be quite difficult to organise, as you have to pay a lot of money in order to sort out all the insurance and accommodation.
At this point I’d been learning German for nearly four years and I was intrigued by the rich culture and history that Germany has to offer. It was, in actual fact, during an oral exam at the Goethe-Institute that I heard out about the German Federal Volunteer Service. I asked my German teacher to help me find out more about the “Incoming” programme they have open to people from all over the world – it seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to travel and to improve my German.
The Bundesfreiwilligendienst is really such a fantastic organisation! There are so many different volunteer positions to choose from and they made it so easy for me: all my health and travel insurance was sorted out for me and they even advised me on how best to apply for my visa.
What inspired you to work as a volunteer?
I think that I was inspired to work as a volunteer because it offers the possibility not just to travel but to really immerse yourself in the culture and become a part of a community. Being able to live and work with local people also helps you to discover more about the environment you’re staying in. Working as a volunteer in Germany I was provided with food, accommodation and even some pocket money for other expenses. This meant that I was able to stay in Germany for a lot longer than if I had just been backpacking around the country.
What was it like to live in Tennental?
Well it was this tiny little village with a huge farm attached to it, tucked away in the middle of the countryside.
The local Schwäbisch culture is certainly very strong, and it was cool to experience that as a foreigner. We had really traditional, authentic food that all came from our farm, and we also celebrated all the holidays and festivals together as a village which was so much fun. The setting of the place was really picturesque, too, with lots of fields and hills. It was close to the Black Forest region which is absolutely lovely.
Probably the main disadvantage for me was how isolated it was there. I grew up in Auckland so I’m used to being able to go into the city whenever I like, and it took me a while to adjust to living in Tennental. But I think that, wherever you go, there will always be a downside so you just have to take each place for what it has to offer and make the most of it.
How much German did you have when you started -- and how much did you learn on the job?
I already had a reasonably strong foundation as I’d been learning German throughout most of my high-school years. Initially I was completely overwhelmed having to speak German twenty-four seven and so I wasn’t very talkative, but I was able to at least understand most of what other people said. I definitely picked up a lot on the job – that is really the most effective way to learn a language because you become totally immersed in it and I even found myself thinking and sometimes dreaming in German.
I was working with adults suffering from mental disabilities in a home environment and so I learned a lot of funny phrases, nicknames and puns that you can never learn in a classroom. Before I began working in Tennental I was nervous about being able to communicate properly with the clients as some of them have speech impediments which could definitely have expanded the language barrier. Yet I found that they were generally very expressive and they let me know if they wanted or needed anything.
What was the best thing about your year?
Without a doubt the best thing would be the other volunteers that I met. All of us came to Tennental from different places and they became like my family away from home. It was so fascinating to be able to talk to people of all different nationalities and backgrounds: it really broadened my mind, and it was just really great to be able to share experiences with them.
It was so sad when we had to go our separate ways but we’re still in touch and hopefully some day our paths will cross again.
What would you say to anyone thinking about volunteering in Germany?
I think that the best piece of advice that I could give would be to really be careful and selective when you’re choosing a volunteer position. There are literally hundreds of organisations all over Germany to choose from so I think everyone should be able to find something to suit them. Never be afraid to ask questions either if you need a bit more information about the institution or what kind of work you’ll be doing. It’s better to get all the details figured out before you go so you’re not too surprised when you arrive.
I also definitely recommend that you ensure you have at least some confidence with German beforehand. I met a lot of volunteers that had learned virtually no German and this made day-to-day life in Germany quite difficult for them. I think that you would miss out on so much if you don’t have an appropriate level of the language.
I also found that living in a foreign country with a new job and being so far away from home can take some getting used to. Allow yourself plenty of time to adapt and do not be disheartened if you start off feeling homesick and miserable. It took me some time to get used to the manner of the German people who are much more reserved and formal than New Zealanders but they were all very friendly towards me once we’d broken the ice and I got on really well with everybody.You’re now back in New Zealand.
What are you going to do next?
Well I hadn’t actually really planned out what the next step would be, but now that I’ve been home for a while I’ve had a chance to take some time and really think about where I want my life to go. I was a bit torn between studying and going on another adventure abroad, but I think overall I am happy with my decision to start university next year.
I’m going to be studying English and professional writing and I’ll continue with German as a minor subject. Ideally I would love to be able to work as a journalist or a translator and be able to travel for my work and combine my two passions. I’m very excited to be beginning another chapter of my life and I guess I’ll just have to wait and see where I’ll go from there.