If You’re a Disillusioned European in Your Mid-Twenties, the Solidarity Corps Might Be for You

Baltic Pride 2019 © Ewelina Mokrzecka, ZW.lt

I like to think of myself as a child of the European Union. I was born just a few months before the Maastricht Treaty entered into force, meaning I’ve been around for about as long as the EU has existed in its present form. It was over a decade before my own country joined the organisation, but around the time I was in primary school, all we did were EU-related assignments. Dioramas with every Member State for the geography class. PowerPoint presentations on the 2004 EU enlargement for the IT class. Learning to sing the ‘Ode to Joy’ for the music class. It is not to say that I am not patriotic or that I don’t see what my own country has given me. But even as an adult, I feel like the most valuable and enriching experiences I was offered in life, were possible thanks to the EU. Now, this is to tell you about one of them, somewhere on the border between education and my professional life.

If you’re like me, you’re somewhere in your twenties and you’re probably wondering what exactly it is that you’re supposed to do with your life. You’ve done your best to graduate, get your university diploma and make your parents proud. You’ve gained some work experience along the way and learnt a language or two. You’ve been told that if you’re dedicated, systematic, and hard-working, the labour market will welcome you with open doors. So you did all that, and you see that there indeed are some jobs out there that would take you. But it doesn’t feel quite right, does it? Meritocracy doesn’t quite work the way you were told.

My adventure with the ‘corporate world’ was brief but intense enough for me to realise it was not what I needed or wanted. About the same time last year, feeling like a mindless, easily replaceable, yet highly co-dependent cog in a machine, I decided to quit my job and go back to what I knew best. I had several years of experience volunteering and working in the NGO sector back in my university years, so I figured finding something new wouldn’t be that hard. But it was not very easy either. One thing about the third sector is that recruitment processes often move awfully slow and before you’re invited for an interview, you find yourself questioning whether that last employment you let go of was really that bad. And if you already forgot, yes — it definitely was.

I was living in Riga at the time when this story begins, and since I had moved there with all my belongings, including a bike, kitchen appliances, TV, and most importantly — a cat, I figured I’d better found something nearby. I had a friend helping me search for job opportunities. As round-educated and well-travelled as she is, she doesn’t usually pay much attention to the post-Soviet part of Europe (she’s Finnish herself). I mention this because when sending me bulks of job offers she could find around Latvia, an internship advertisement for Lithuania slipped through. They searched for someone who’d speak both Polish and Lithuanian, and I knew nothing of the latter but encouraged by my well-meaning friend, I decided to write them an e-mail anyway.

They responded much quicker than your typical NGO would, and it turned out they were looking for a volunteer to do a European Solidarity Corps project thing with them. I had heard about ESC before and I knew it was the new re-branded version of what used to be the EVS. I didn’t think much of it at first, because all my friends who had done EVS projects before had to share a flat with some other Erasmus+ people (not much of a people-person myself), they didn’t have much more than one suitcase on them, and they definitely didn’t travel with a cat. But since I was getting more desperate and disillusioned about my occupational prospects every day, I decided to give it a try. After all, they were searching for someone exactly like me — fluent in Polish, experienced in non-formal education, and interested in human rights. It felt so comforting that someone was actually looking for a person like me.

Long story short, I got in and a couple of months later I was sitting next to a Belarussian driver named Евгений in a cargo lorry on our way to Vilnius. My cat was sitting in the truck cabin beside me. The organisation that took me in was the European Foundation of Human Rights — a small Lithuanian NGO working primarily with the rights of national minorities. While I was trying not to have too many expectations, I knew from the very first day in office that it was the right place for me. It was when Evelina, my co-worker and mentor, walked in and asked ‘You’re coming to the Pride parade with us on Saturday, right? We’re going to wave Polish and rainbow flags side by side’. There and then I knew I had a place to be whomever I wanted to be, and a group of people to share it with.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows (pun intended). At first, I was pretty apprehensive about the whole concept of being a volunteer again because I felt I deserved to finally have what I would call ‘a proper employment’ — long-term, on a contract, a job that I would be proud to tell others about. But after what that other job had put me through, I figured that having my expenses covered and not having to worry about too much was a good start. There were also times where I had to adjust to different working styles of my colleagues or when we’d have to tweak our communication patterns. But what made it worth it is that my new co-workers were from the very start happy to have and allowed me to bring my own ideas to the table.

Since I already had some acquaintances in another NGO based in Lithuania, I came up with a project that we could do together as partners. For me, bringing my experience of project coordination and educational activities, combined with the human rights expertise of my new workplace, seemed like a perfect mix. However, having previously worked with a director that would take weeks to become convinced about ANYTHING, I didn’t know how much time it would take me here. Well, guess how many times I had to see my direct supervisor to get my project approved. Once. I sat with her, presented my idea, and that was it. The next day I was writing the full project proposal that was later approved and funded by the Vilnius City Municipality. Throughout three months, my colleagues from YFU and I delivered a series of workshops dedicated to expanding teenagers’ perspective about basic human rights, hate speech, and volunteering.

‘Queer and Nation’ © Kreivės / Vilnius Queer Festival

It’s not like it was anything out of the ordinary for me, though. I had done dozens of similar workshops before and had worked with high school youth on numerous occasions. Where the real challenge came for me was when I was invited to speak as a panellist during a queer film festival organised in Vilnius (it’s called Kreivės, check it out here, it’s a great event). It wasn’t really that much of a big deal. It was a short discussion about nationalism and anti-LGBTQ+ movements across Europe, a topic I knew quite well. It started after a screening of three shorts, with an audience of 30, maybe 40 people. But to me that was huge. Being terrified as I normally am of being in the spotlight and at the centre of attention, petrified by the thought of being assessed and criticised, speaking in front of people like that was quite an event for me. Luckily enough, I didn’t know beforehand it was going to be streamed live on the organisers’ Facebook page. And I had my closest colleague, Monika, present to give me reassuring smiles whenever I needed.

My European Solidarity Corps project allowed me to try out a bunch of other things I hadn’t done or hadn’t felt too comfortable about before. It allowed me to have a go at them, in a safe and judgement-free environment. Speaking of which, what definitely deserves to be noted, is how much help, quite unexpectedly, I have received from my peers when it comes to my mental health. My previous job had played a strong part in me going into a relapse of my depression and anxiety disorder months before I even thought of moving to Vilnius. And while I believed it would all be sorted once I got back on medication, I experienced aggravation several times on my journey to recovery. Being able to freely talk about my struggles with my co-workers and ask for help when needed, without the fear of being judged or ridiculed, played an immense part in me getting better.

My internship also helped me to realise what I really wanted to do in the future. Or maybe, what I truly didn’t want to do. What was true then and is true now, is that I definitely don’t want to end up in another company working exclusively for profit, like an absent-minded, expendable tool. I need my work to have a purpose, big or small, but it needs to be something that actually matters. And it’s not the only thing I have realised. My expectations towards what an acceptable flat looks like changed. My expectations towards what reasonable working conditions are changed. Whether I changed, I don’t know. But I did become stronger in my conviction of who I am and what are the values I stand behind.

I’ll be honest, it sucks to have to be looking for a job again. For the last ten months, things were unquestionably easier. Not having to worry about a new job for nearly a year was a bliss. Not stressing out about paying rent every month? Check. Having flexible working hours and an adjustable schedule? Check. Doing something that creates an added value in the community I live in? Check. Now, whether I like it or not, any job search takes time and with it, it does eventually lower your demands. I am trying not to give in to the option of applying just for ‘whatever’ out of fear of not finding anything better. I’m doing my best to capitalise on the lessons my project gave me and remember the value I can bring to a new workplace. And recognise that I should not settle for less, just because I’ve been told that’s the reality we live in. So to all of those who found themselves questioning life, themselves, and the labour market in their late 20s — try European Solidarity Corps, it might work for you as well. It did for me.

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Marta Agnieszka Bednarczyk

Marta Agnieszka Bednarczyk

14 Followers

Twenty-something-year-old educator, researcher and activist trying to find her place in the world