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Volunteering in South Africa – The Best Career Break!

My name is Rebecca, and I am a volunteer at the Big Cats Research & Conservation project in South Africa. For the past eight years, I have been teaching Art to grades 1-12 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin (USA). I was happy with my job, but began to harbor the feeling that a change would foster growth in my life, both personally and professionally. Okay, so maybe turning 30 had a little bit to do with it… but once the seed of the idea was planted, it took root and began to grow!

I had to face the fact that I would need to take some risks if I was going to find the change I was looking for. I gave myself a pep talk, asked for a leave of absence for the 2014-2015 school year, and established a set of goals! Primarily, I know it is time to develop my illustration portfolio for application to graduate school. I’ve been dreaming of a secondary career in scientific illustration. And while I’m at it, why not go see the world? And once I get there, I want more than just to visit a country and make a lot of paintings. I want the opportunity for cultural exchange. I want to gain experience outside the only career I have ever known. I want to be one of those people I was secretly jealous of who do things like study lions from a safari truck.

Volunteering seemed to be the answer I was looking for! I researched many programs, and knew I had found what I was looking for when I found the African wildlife research & conservation program through GoEco! I arrived in South Africa on the evening of December 7. The next morning, ten minutes into my first research drive, I watched wide-eyed from the truck as a pride of lions ate a wildebeest.

On the reserve, I lived in a beautiful cabin on a hill overlooking the reserve. Each day typically begins with breakfast and a game drive. The game drives are everybody’s favorite part of the day. You never know if lions, elephants, zebras or even a leopard might be right around the next bend! When we were not out on drive, we dedicated some time each day to research tasks and projects. Choosing a focus we were interested in, we contributed to the research by helping to enter data, tag photos from camera traps, or creating ID kits to help distinguish the individual animals. Twice each week, we also assisted in conservation work such as picking litter from the roads or removing invasive species of plants. During the evening hours, we were free to relax, swim in the pool, watch a movie, or enjoy time with other volunteers!

In South Africa, I was greeted with an abundance of visual inspiration. Drawings of elephants, rhinos and lions now fill my sketchbook, and I have a growing list of ideas I can’t wait to get on paper! Listening to our guides as they interpret the behavior and traits of the animals and plants was immensely helpful as I illustrated my surroundings. Our work in the Research program was a refreshing change of pace and an incredible learning experience.

Six weeks volunteering in South Africa have never passed so quickly! When I made the decision to take a career break, it seemed like a big risk. In the perfect vision of hindsight, that decision might have been easier. I loved my daily experience, I treasure the memories and relationships I have made, and I look forward to the impact it will have on my future!