What qualities make for a good fit for doing international fieldwork with LoveAIDS? Some of the qualities one might be able to pick out right away – a genuine appreciation for other cultures, licensure/formal education in the medical field…. But other qualities might not be so readily obvious…. My mind travels back to a conversation I was part of in the past 9 months:
“I’m American, so if I come work with you in this country, I want to have an American experience when in this country,” my ears heard, causing my jaw to drop. Big, beautiful eyes gazed out at me across the room with a sincere, servant’s heart innocence.
“But if you come to work with us in Costa Rica, you are not [going to be] in the United States,” I responded, shocked. “Costa Rica is not the United States.”
“But I’m American, and if I’m in Costa Rica, I expect you to provide an American experience for me,” was the inexperienced reply back. “Uh….” was the first verbal response I could gather as I sought frantically in the flabbergasted crevices of my mind for an intelligent answer back….
As you can imagine, it goes to say that it was during this moment I realized that this particular candidate, who was extremely qualified in other ways, was probably not the best fit to send out to the field in Costa Rica (I sought further to find if this candidate was flexible at all in their expectations of what they thought their experience should be in the field, and, unfortunately, they were not.)
In the past nine months, I have spoken with a number of candidates in looking to receive our first short-term workers this year, some demonstrating greater preparedness for international global health work and others demonstrating less. Out of that I realized the importance of highlighting just a few important qualities of what makes for a good fit for doing international fieldwork with LoveAIDS:
1) Appropriate Cultural Humility
I admit, for some U.S. Americans, this may be a no-brainer. For those who come to work with LoveAIDS from countries other than the United States, this may also seem as a no-brainer. But for many U.S. Americans, this may be a harder one to understand at first.
This might be a little bit more difficult for many otherwise very qualified potential fieldworkers, if they are U.S. Americans, because so many, in the United States unknowingly, innocently, see the United States as the center of, if not everything, most things, and possibly the best place on earth.
Admittedly, the United States does have many wonderful things going for it and is a leader in many areas, yes. Of course. And it is a beautiful country with beautiful people who stand for human rights and who, in very many ways, are extremely generous with many of the world’s countries and bring much good to these countries through their hard work and generosity. If you are U.S. American and want to feel proud of your country, just do a Google search on nonprofit work done by U.S. American organizations on an international level. It will make your heart smile.
But the United States is not the only country on earth.
Because this specific topic covers countless areas, I will focus on one area, for starters, that can help at least slightly adjust one’s perspective of how one views the rest of the world (that is, the world outside of the United States.)
“I’m American…” spoke the eager candidate in that informative conversation.
Who is “American?” I asked myself afterwards. The answer rushed to my mind quickly.
Argentinians are Americans.
Costa Ricans are Americans.
Chileans are Americans.
Peruvians are Americans.
Bolivians are Americans.
Brazilians are Americans.
Panamanians are Americans.
Guatemalans are Americans.
Uruguayans are Americans.
U.S. Americans are also Americans.
Speak with a Costa Rican or a Chilean or an Argentinian, and they will tell you that they are Americans. I’ve actually been asked numbers of times by Costa Ricans with a confused look on their faces, “Why do U.S. Americans call themselves “Americans” as if only people from the U.S. are Americans?’ Yes, those were slightly awkward conversations….
It is true that not only U.S. Americans are Americans. America includes South, Central, and North America. All are part of America. In seeking to be effective in working alongside Americans (aka other peoples from the Americas) as those of us who are U.S. Americans work in other countries, remembering this can be something that helps us walk in cultural humility.
2) A Readiness to Work Within the Boundary Lines of the Experiences LoveAIDS, as a Global Health Organization, Can Provide.
“I want to have an American experience,” the eager candidate told me, causing me to temporarily blank out and lose my train of thought. I admit, that was the last thing I expected to hear.
It was then that I was confronted point blank with the reality that eager candidates bring memories of and expectations from previous experiences of international “mission trips” with them when they think about serving with LoveAIDS.
Each person’s past undoubtedly shapes their expectations and imaginations when they consider doing international work for a first time and when considering doing international work again. And many a candidate’s international “mission trip” experience has been shaped by them serving with a wonderful charity organization that is not a hospital organization public charity.
But what defines an “American experience” when one is volunteering internationally with a hospital organization public charity? Or more specifically, what can that “experience” be when the organization one is serving with is a hospital organization public charity?
It is exotic to travel. It is exotic to see tourist destinations. It is a nice to have some work-related report & reflect retreat time away from a work site….
But as a professional organization, LoveAIDS is defined by specific boundaries in the experiences it can provide.
LoveAIDS is a hospital organization public charity with the IRS. This means donated funds must be used with the documentable cause-and-effect of providing medical care: the sending of workers to the field, paying for worker’s provisions, paying for needed supplies, the provision of an operations person to oversee administrative functions which allows the fieldwork to continue, and so on.
Some “medical mission” organizations have a model of fieldwork where workers travel to a region of a country which has a complete lack of medical care available and where for a specific period of time the volunteers provide a blast of medical treatment (i.e. diagnosis, surgery, prescriptions,) and then return home to their countries.
Sometimes these organizations have a schedule, which is very rigid with long hours, customized specifically to do as much work as possible in as little time. Other times, the medical or dental workers are pampered a little, do not work regular-length shifts, and are afforded a significant amount of luxuries the local people to not have access to, since the goal is specifically to provide medical or dental attention, not to enter into, understand, and integrate into the culture.
As a global health organization, LoveAIDS focuses on being the hands and feet of Christ by bringing our resources to strengthen already existing in-country systems. We come alongside. This model is more sustainable for the target countries we partner with and allows patients to receive more consistent, longer-term treatment.
This means that LoveAIDS short-term workers come and work alongside long-term workers in the pre-existing schedule that has been arranged with the facilities we partner with. This allows for many opportunities, including further developing pre-existing relationships with a long-term relationship in mind.
As a hospital organization public charity, LoveAIDS is required to demonstrate through the volume of medical care hours worked that providing medical care is our objective. This is easily accomplished because we work professional hours in providing medical care to our target population. Not excessive hours nor minimal hours. We work professional work shifts in the field. And we value the professional and personal maturity of our short-term workers in working professional hours alongside our long-term workers.
This allows LoveAIDS to use wise stewardship with the generous donations of our donors as well as to provide dependable, professional service to the facilities we partner with.
Before I specifically address the “American” in “I want to have an American experience,” let me take a quick detour with important qualities #3:
3) A Professional Maturity and Ability to Work Well on a Team
Some things, one thinks, shouldn’t need to be said. LoveAIDS should just quietly screen for these qualities when doing reference checks, and that should be all that is necessary.
But this is one that needs to be talked about.
Some wonderful people, beautiful people, people who may be otherwise well-spoken of, can come to the international field and demonstrate a side of them that seems out of character. Others, who might not strike you as an “exceptional” fit for doing international work but just “average,” arrive in the field and do beautifully. Although international work is never easy, you see a hidden side of them that comes out in the international context that just takes your breath away with how effective they are.
How does this happen?
Living and working internationally adds a stress level to one’s life that is unlike living in one’s home country. Unresolved family issues, unresolved personal issues can suddenly flare up, to the dismay of other team members or team leaders in the field. Important questions to ask are, “How does this candidate work and communicate with other team members? With team leaders?”
Other important questions to ask are, “How does this person handle situations when things don’t go their way?” and “Can this candidate really handle it when the luxuries, comforts, and conveniences they are used to are taken away, and how do they live day-to-day in that context?”
I have been on trips walking through red-light districts where pimps propositioned me to be “serviced” by their sex workers, where sex workers looked me in the face and I could see the misery unhidden in their faces, and I have also been to places where it could just be dangerous to be a U.S. American and where I, as a female, was not supposed to make eye contact with men. As of writing this, I have also worked in Costa Rica for a year and a half now. It is stressful. My experience is not that of beaches and Mai Tais but of seeing a lot of suffering and death and of dealing with the day-in and day-out stresses of living in another country. It’s not easy.
The importance of stressing that interested LoveAIDS candidates need to have a professional maturity and be able to work well on a team cannot be overstated.
Nor, do I believe, can one be too cautious and intentional in doing reference checks. Sometimes you ask a candidate to put down a professor or employer, and they put down a close friend instead of an objective reference. Sometimes when you ask for the phone number of a parent, they put down a work number of the parent that makes the parent very hard, if not impossible, to reach. Such behavior on the part of a candidate brings up questions of why is the candidate doing this and what concerns does it expose?
A qualified candidate will confidently put down objective references and will do everything they can to make sure the phone numbers they provide allow their contacts to be reached by LoveAIDS as easily as possible.
Again, what is important here is that LoveAIDS candidates have the professional maturity and the ability to work well on a team that is needed in the international field. An emotional maturity demonstrated by even how a candidate applies to our organization tells us important information about the readiness of that candidate to be in the field.
4) Lastly, a Spiritual Maturity Demonstrated by an Ability to Live Among the Local People as a Local
I think back again to the words I was told by that eager, big-eyed candidate, words which left me dumbfounded: “I want to have an American experience if I come serve with LoveAIDS….”
It is easy to demand, “I want to have the U.S. American experience if I come work with LoveAIDS.” The exact comforts. The convenience. The experiences of a U.S. American traveler…. I mean, why not? I personally would like those comforts, conveniences, and experiences too, especially in a country of warm weather, palm and coconut trees, fresh fish, ceviche, mango smoothies, to put my feet up….
But contrary to the experience this eager candidate was asking for as they shared their expectations, the apostle Paul showed humility when talking about how he did international work. He expressed that when he worked among a people, he made himself like those people, and he lived side by side with them. “Like the Romans…” he wrote. Where did this motivation come from? Why did Paul do this? “The love of Christ compels us….” Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians 5:14.
Or if we need more guidance on this, we can always look to Jesus.
Jesus was born into a human body and lived on this planet the way we humans do, living amongst us, and out of love humbled Himself. “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself….” (Philippians 2:5-8.)
It is out of this model, first demonstrated by Jesus, then Paul, that LoveAIDS looks for a spiritual maturity in the lives of potential fieldwork candidates that proves itself by an ability to live among the local people we work with as a local.
LoveAIDS leadership takes responsibility, to the extent is it reasonable as individuals still make their own decisions, for learning the customs and culture of each country and what is safe in each country and shares that information with our short-term workers. This frees LoveAIDS workers to be able to live and work comfortably in the ways the local people do. This means walking on the streets, using the bus system, using taxis when appropriate, eating local foods and at local restaurants that are recognized as safe.
And just as other international aid and medical care organizations allow for a significant but discerning amount of freedom for its workers, so does LoveAIDS. By doing so, LoveAIDS lives out the commitment to not try to create a context in which short-term or long-term workers experience a mini-United States within another country but to allow instead for our workers to enter, understand, and to be integrated in the local culture as much as possible with the approach that the apostle Paul used.
LoveAIDS leadership understands that the dynamics of intercultural relationships are such that pre-existing long-term relationships are further solidified and that the effectiveness of each short-term trip is further enhanced by short-term workers interacting with the country and the people of the country the way long-term workers do in seeking to enter, understand, and be integrated in the local culture as much as possible.
Is that not what it means that "when one is in Rome, be like the Romans?”
What was the motivation for all this again?
"The love of Christ compels us," writes the apostle Paul....
These four areas addressed here are important and just starting points regarding qualities that make for a good fit for doing international fieldwork with LoveAIDS.
The gratefulness and appreciation LoveAIDS has for how short-term workers have sought to integrate and will seek to integrate into the countries in which we work cannot be overstated. We are immensely grateful for how our short-term fieldworkers have served and will serve in the future alongside our long-term fieldworkers as we seek to be the hands and feet of Christ. We cherish your prayers.
Ingrid Anne Stavrica
LoveAIDS would like to remind our partners & public that we are limited in both the stories and photos we can share do to needing to protect patient confidentiality, complying with patient privacy laws originating within both the U.S and the countries we work with.