We are afraid of change; we are afraid of the challenges that comes with it. Self-doubt, lack of confidence and the indecisiveness is holding us back from reaching our fullest potential. We came across an inspiring young individual who had the courage to embark a new chapter in life. This is the story of Shenali Perera, an undergraduate of University of Peradeniya, who said YES to take the first step to begin a journey of a thousand memories.
What is the first impression someone would have about Shenali Perera?
If you ask someone about me, they’d say I’m the girl who always has a big smile on her face. Well that’s true, I laugh all the time! They would say Shenali is an extrovert with a fun personality and she’s ever ready to say yes to new adventures.
What was the global volunteer opportunity you applied for and what motivated you to apply for it?
After I enrolled into University of Peradeniya, I had a 2–3-month break until my academic year commenced. My main motivation was to utilize this period to do something beneficial that would add value to my CV and at the same time to take a vacation. Initially I was looking for a research project as the degree I was hoping to follow included Social Sciences that requires a similar background. During my search for a research-based internship, one of my friends from the university introduced me to AIESEC and the opportunities it offers. Impressed by that I roamed through AIESEC.org and found out about the internships and volunteering opportunities that was available. Initially my preference was to do a gender related project, but I was advised to sign up for a quality education SDG 4 project, which I was told would give me ample time for traveling and gaining exposure. The global volunteer project I applied for was a teaching opportunity in a very rural, outskirt area called Sa Pa in Vietnam.
What was the biggest challenge you had to face during your stay?
The biggest challenge I had to face during my time in Vietnam was COVID-19. During the first week since my arrival, COVID had just started surging. The project I applied for was in Sa Pa as mentioned earlier and unfortunately Sa Pa was located close to the Chinese border. So going there for my project was very risky as everything was under lockdown. It was mentally upsetting and terrifying as we were unfamiliar with COVID back then and I was far away from home. Even though the fellow AIESECers of my host country were there and my EP buddy was really supportive and considerate, I couldn’t fight away the feeling of loneliness.
With the situation getting worse each day, I was given the option to change my project to a virtual teaching project in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam which was much safer given the circumstances. Changing my project mid-way and adjusting to the online teaching platform was indeed a challenge. Being the resilient person I was, I took the most of this opportunity. Since the project was virtual, it offered me plenty of time to travel during my leisure time. I felt like I adapted to the changes and worked my way through each day. In the terms of the project, it was a challenge to connect with foreign children through an online platform, specially the language barrier made it extra tough to communicate virtually.
Tell us about an unforgettable experience you had in particular.
In Vietnam the currency is very different. If I were to give you an example, 22,000 Vietnamese dong is equivalent to Rs. 200 in Sri Lanka. So the notes were quite different, and we had to carry 1 million and 2 million notes which was really unfamiliar to me. One day I had to travel in the bus and the bus the fare summed up to 10 Vietnamese dongs. Unfortunately I was only carrying a 1 million dong note. The bus driver didn’t have any change and I didn’t know what to do at that point. There was a lady in the bus who saw what was happening and asked me where I was from and once she learned that I was a foreigner, she offered to pay my bus fare. I was very grateful for her. That bus ride was pretty long, and I ended up talking to her for more than an hour. As the conversation continued, she told that she was a travel agent, and she gave me her card and told me to come visit her if I get the chance.
The weekend before I was supposed to leave, I went to see her with a couple of my Vietnamese friends to say my goodbyes and pay her back. When I went, she immediately recognized me, and she set up a tour in Ha Long Bay and gave me a huge discount. I wont ever forget this incident because it showed me the hospitality and how genuinely good some people can be. We still keep in touch through social media, and it is amazing how a total stranger can turn into a lifelong friend.
What were the changes you saw in yourself before and after the volunteering opportunity?
I was a girl who lived a very sheltered life. I had never been on my own and I always had my parents guiding me. So this was a step outside my comfort zone and an eye opener for me. I really understood the kind of life I was living before as this experience made me realize that I should rethink and reevaluate my life.
When you are alone in a foreign country you learn to be self-dependent and most importantly resilient. You will have to face many challenges, changes, and difficulties but with time you will learn that you are in this alone, and you have to build yourself to become capable enough to overcome whatever that is thrown your way. This opportunity made me more in tune with myself and made me realize what my strengths and shortcomings are. I got a better understanding about myself as a person and what I wanted in life. I also got the chance to self-reflect and to cherish my roots. There was a time in Vietnam that I used to go to a lake nearby with my friends and we used to stay there for hours thinking about life. Leadership qualities, strategic thinking and learning to take my own decisions confidently are a few among many qualities that I took away from this experience.
We all have a set path in life. Most of us are following a pre-determined pathway that is the guaranteed safe road. Sometimes you have to take a breather and think if this is exactly what you want in life. At the end of the day, you are the only permanent person in your life. So why not live a life you are happy and passionate about rather than living a life where pleasing others and meeting expectations is the only thing you do. It’s time we take the risk and live our lives for ourselves.
By Venuri Perera
Content Writer | AIESEC in University of Peradeniya