AIESEC is an independent, non-profit global platform which unites students and recent graduates from higher education institutes across the globe under a single banner with the aim of cultivating leadership skills within them.
Currently, AIESEC represents 126 countries with 70,000 active members representing 2400 universities. Founded in 1948, AIESEC originally stood for Association Internationale des Étudiants en Sciences Économiques et Commerciales. However, it is no longer an acronym and functions as the name of the organization.
Sri Lanka has been a member of AIESEC since 1995. “AIESEC provides leadership development opportunities via volunteer programmes and internship programmes focusing on community development projects. Currently, Sri Lanka has more than 950 members. AIESEC volunteers do not receive any payment for their work, they participate in the projects primarily in order to fine-tune their leadership skills and to gain a valuable experience,” says AIESEC Sri Lanka vice president, Public Relations, Tharinduni de Silva.
These members have been involved in many projects around the country alighted with sustainable development goals. These projects range from gender equality to environment conservation.
“Two such projects that could be highlighted are FAITH and Hygeia 3.0. FAITH was a cancer awareness programme conducted with the additional aim of providing cancer patients with necessary palliative care. On the other hand, Hygeia 3.0 involved installing Reverse Osmosis (RO) filters in areas where water supply is scarce.
FAITH was organized by AIESEC in the University of Colombo with the participation of nine exchange parties and 10 members. The team was led by Tharanga Dissanayake. Activities included Pink Army Campaigns which are essentially cancer awareness campaigns for the public and accessorized in pink. There were also sessions on oral cancer, conducted by maxillofacial consultants for the general public, as well as university undergraduates.
In addition, the sessions included routine activities carried out at the CCC House, for children receiving residential treatment at the cancer hospital. These included games, watching movies, kids craft and play days. The Project also included routine palliative care provided to elderly patients at the Shantha Sevana hospice.
There were also awareness programmes conducted for school children and cancer dialogs.”The Project reached out to 200 cancer patients,” says Tharinduni.
The Project was carried out in partnership with the National Cancer Control Programme, Sri Lanka, CCC Foundation (Courage Compassion and Commitment), Shantha Sevana Hospice, Maharagama and WeadSara. Financial partnership was provided by CanHope.
Hygeia 3.0 was organized by Univeristy of Sri Jayawardenapura and the project involved installing RO filters in Mahakoongaskada, Medawachchiya and Anuradhapura. There were six exchange parties and nine local members involved and the team was led by Mahesha Senanayake.
In addition to taking part in local community development projects, Sri Lankan AIESEC members volunteer abroad during two seasons at the peak of winter and summer.
Generally exchange participants who volunteer abroad are expected to cover their food and lodging costs. What they receive in turn is an invaluable experience that contributes to their personal as well as career development.
“It is an experience every undergraduate should be exposed to. Since you are there to volunteer for a short period, you need high adaptability skills in order to fast adjust to the surroundings and go on with the tasks. A degree can’t provide you with that. It was the best experience in my university life,” declared Shanieka Amerasinghe on her voluntary experience overseas.
She is local committee vice president for out-going global volunteers of AIESEC University of Kelaniya.
Shanieka volunteered abroad in a project organized by the University of Nottingham, Malaysia in February 2016. The project was focused on Malaysian education and was carried out in order to promote school students to join universities. “We targeted school students aged from 15 to 18 from five government schools in Semenyih town. The project was conducted for a period of six weeks and was aimed at career development and soft skills development via interactive and communicative sessions. The students were taught that the importance was continuing higher education” Amerasinghe said.
There were eight AIESEC exchange participants working on the project from Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka. “We advised them on what field to choose in University because most students wanted to enter university for the sake of entering”, she said.
In addition, there was a mandatory cultural session for the volunteers which facilitated the showcase of the particular culture they belong to.
“I lived in a house with other volunteers from the project. There, we were exposed to many different cultures. We had to provide our own food and we used to experiment with food from each other’s culture. We all interacted together and it was a lot of fun,” she added.
Andrew Sean was another exchange participant who participated in the global ambassador programme. “The difference in ambassador programme is that one has to document the experience and share with others. I was not an AIESEC member. I was approached because of my background in film-making. So, I choose to document my experience as videos and upload them on You Tube”, said Sean.
Sean participated in the Global Passport Programme conducted in Vietnam in 2016 December. The project ran for six weeks and was aimed at teaching high school students to use English in day to day activities.”The topic for that year was ‘Generation Y’ and it included showing the students that life has more to it than just a desk job. “We carried out different activities to interact and engage the participants”, he recalled.
Sean had the opportunity of finding lodging with a host family. “I was lucky enough that they had already hosted a Sri Lankan before. So, they knew where I came from. By staying with them I was exposed to their culture and learnt their way of life”, said Sean.
It was the first time Sean travelled abroad and it hasn’t quite occurred to him until he was on board the plane. “Everybody there was very helpful and I adjusted quickly to the environment. When we started the sessions we didn’t expect students to show a very high level of improvement. However, towards the end they were more confident than us. It was satisfying to experience their improvement. Given the chance, I would do this again”, Sean added.
Local committee vice president for talent management, AIESEC Sri Lanka, Vidushika Withanage had the opportunity of participating in Sawasdee Project in Thailand for six weeks starting from December 2015. It was a national project from Thailand, arranged by the University of Assumption and included 58 exchange participants from 20-plus countries.
The project was focused on teaching high school students English. Vidushika taught at Pathomkham Wittaya School with three more exchange participants. “During the first two weeks I assisted the English teacher in that particular class. Afterwards, I focused on grammar and did many activities. I had the opportunity of teaching different classes from different grades”, said Vidushika.
Vidushika was provided free lodging and food at a school dorm during her stay. “I had the opportunity of visiting teachers in their houses. Also, I spoke to people from a whole village. Since none of them spoke English, a teacher from the school where I taught translated it for me. Actually the language barrier was one challenge while being out there when carrying out day to day social interactions”, Vidushika said.
In terms of her experience, for somebody volunteering in an alien country for the first time, everything from food to culture is new. “There is a culture shock. It took me about one and half weeks to get used to the culture there, since they were a very open culture. Homosexuality is openly accepted there. Even school rules were very different from ours. So I had to adapt to all that in addition to my duties. At the same time people were very hospitable, which helped”, she recalled.
The AIESEC exchange participant programmes are available to school students, in addition to undergraduates and recent graduates. “My voluntary experience contributed to make me a stronger individual. Now I can go to any country by myself. I recommend to everyone AIESEC exchange participant programmes. It would make you venture beyond your comfort zone to experience cultural differences to the fullest,” Vidushika promised.