I moved to Silicon Valley during the summer of 2014, almost four years ago. I had just graduated college and serendipitously landed here because of a new job offer. I was eager and anxious to start my career out here and frankly had no idea what to expect.
Suddenly, I was surrounded by technology and innovation and immersed in a community where challenging yourself was highly encouraged. The next three years of living in San Francisco had a path-altering impact on my life, as I began to learn that crazy ideas aren’t “crazy” if you are willing to put in the work and take a few risks.
Transitioning to Box was nothing short of amazing. I was learning and growing at a break neck pace. I was passionate and excited by my work. Frankly, I was having so much fun, that not a single day felt like “work." Beyond just loving my work, I also felt empowered. Empowered to do things I never thought were possible before. Being an employee here gave me freedom. Freedom to create and build anything I wanted, whenever I wanted and wherever I wanted. The freedom to learn how everything works at a fundamental level. The freedom to teach and empower other Boxers. And most importantly, the freedom to be a creator and literally create something from nothing.
What Was My Awakening Moment?
Now you are probably reading this and are saying, "wow, his life sounds awesome" and to be quite honest, my life is pretty amazing and I am very thankful for every opportunity that I have received thus far. That said, I definitely started to take my life for granted, got caught up in the glamour of the fast pace life of Silicon Valley, and slowly started to lose my true and authentic self. It was not until this year that I came to this awakening moment. These last 1.5 years at Box have been truly amazing. I got the privilege of helping out our engineering team grow from a human capital perspective, I created a Mindful Me Program with two amazing women leaders here at Box focused on bringing mindfulness to the workplace, hosted numerous events at our headquarters, and was honored to lead our volunteering efforts for Box.org. This all sounds amazing and I am very fortunate for each and every opportunity that have been knocking on my door, but it came with a cost.
My awakening moment hit me when I slowly noticed that I had been working numerous 80+ hour work-weeks, averaging 3 hours of sleep a night, and living most of my days on autopilot. I was disgusted by this realization. Here I am teaching Boxers how to be more Mindful, yet I am being a hypocrite and not practicing that myself. And just when I least expected it, I got an email that was forwarded to me, that truly changed my perspective on my life moving forward. My colleague, Christina Louie, had forwarded me an email from a program called IVHQ that was focused on providing affordable volunteer travel experiences that are responsible, safe and high quality. Their programs were focused on heightening global awareness and cultural understanding through the skills and expertise brought by volunteers to their host communities, and through the experiences and lessons that volunteers take back to their own countries and cultures.
This was an opportunity I could not pass on and after vetting them out completely, I jumped into the application process with open arms. It had been on my mind for quite some time now to return back to Africa for an immersion service trip. I traveled to Ghana and South Africa back in 2012 while participating in the Semester at Sea program. During my time there, I truly experienced the gift of interconnectedness, gratitude, and joy of giving back to communities in need.
So, from April 20th-May 2nd I traveled to Rabat, Morocco on a 10-day pilot program representing Box and Box.org. Box.org believes that those committed to doing good in the world should have the capacity to do it. Through this mission, we provide social impact organizations [nonprofits] the resources they need to innovate and fulfill their mission.
Now volunteering abroad isn't like your average trip abroad -- it has the power to change you in unexpected and important ways. Sometimes these changes are clear and other times they're fuzzy, hard to define, and part of a bigger self-evolution. But how exactly will a volunteer trip abroad affect you, the volunteer? I can't say exactly how it will affect and change you, but I can help you evaluate your experience or think about the impact you will make by sharing how volunteering in Morocco changed my life -- or rather, is still changing my life.
What was I sent to do?
During this trip, I spent 10 days visiting the different NGO's that IVHQ serves, checking out the facilities -- seeing how they are run and how they are being funded -- and worked on a Women's Education Project focused on empowering Moroccan Women to understand purposeful living and feel a sense of independence. Many women in Morocco suffer from poverty, illiteracy and unemployment, affecting their social environment and, in turn, their children’s education. This Women’s Education project through IVHQ aimed to enable local Moroccan women to improve their literacy levels in English, French, and Arabic, and to focus on creating and selling crafts which are then sold locally to help provide them with their own income stream. These tasks included running small workshops and assisting local teachers to help these women acquire marketable skills.
After visiting Morocco, I learned and experienced firsthand some of the issues the country is struggling with. It is a male dominated society and women are often excluded from educational or career opportunities. There were several occasions in which my male program coordinator would direct questions or instructions at me rather then then female teacher or other women volunteers, completely ignoring their presence. Although sexism is present throughout the world, I had never seen such blatant disregard simply because they were women. Putting myself in this position completely changed my perception of this issue. It's socially responsible to be aware of what's going on beyond our own borders. Being aware of what goes on in the world unfortunately means being exposed to negative and heart breaking stories. Volunteering abroad is a similar experience. There were plenty of wonderfully uplifting things I saw, but I also inevitably became aware of the inherent issues that exist in Morocco and other developing countries -- especially when it came to women's rights, the impact of living in a politically unstable country, and low quality of living.
Why Did I Go and What Did I Learn?
What I did was not the most important part about this trip, but rather what I saw and experienced was what changed me for the better. The reason why I choose to go on this type of program and why I chose Morocco, was because of the lessons I learned back in 2012 during my stay in Ghana and South Africa.
In Africa, there is a concept known as 'Ubuntu'- the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievement of others. It’s not something that we talk about often. Too many of us are focused on the ‘struggle’ of our daily lives to even think of giving back.
But, if we are honest with ourselves, we know in the back of our minds that there are people in our communities who are living below the bread line and barely subsisting on a day to day basis. For the longest time, I thought was giving back, that I was serving others, and that I was living life with a greater purpose in mind. However, it was not until this trip that my life turned upside down and my true and authentic self started to peel through the layers that I was hiding it under.
Morocco is now the 27th country that I have visited and hands down has taught me more lessons to take back home with me then I could have ever imagined. For starters, the local people that I met and interacted with taught me the true meaning of compassion, humanity and a sense of appreciation that awakens when we give back to people. There is nothing greater to center our focus in this world than beginning to understand just how much we have to be grateful for. This comes from being in direct contact with the act of giving to people who are less fortunate than ourselves. They believe that behaviors are contagious, and if we want to see foreseeable change happen, then we must lead by example. If people see you or other people giving back to society in some shape or form, it is likely to be an idea that sticks with them. It's this idea of inspiring others by doing and being.
Despite its economic progress, 4 million Moroccans remain in poverty and live on less than $4 a day and poverty in Morocco remains an issue. However, the locals taught me that giving back encourages dialogue between people, communities and nations in ways that people would not ordinarily have experienced before. They believe that when people choose to give, they unite from different sectors and communities in the name of a common cause. This is a key contributing factor in strengthening communities and nation-building in Morocco and other nations. To them, no matter how much they are being affected by poverty, when you find ways to give back to society, this helps to provide some instant relief from poverty, struggling and suffering. Even if a long-term, sustainable solution is needed, people still need food in their mouths, clothes on their back and access to basic sanitation in the immediate moment. This can be achieved in a number of different ways.
Where Do We Go From Here?
My initial vision of what this volunteering service trip looked like included lots of smiles, sharing my knowledge to those in need, and making a tangible difference in people's lives. It wasn't until after I left Morocco that I began to realize how naive and irresponsible it is to think that a single volunteer can change the world. Development is a much larger and involved process, and as a single volunteer, we're more likely to have small impacts than world-changing ones. The major lesson I learned was: the sooner I can come to terms with the fact that the world is not perfect, the sooner I can stop trying to make it so, and the sooner I can focus on the small bit I can do.
The toughest lesson of them all, however, was admitting and accepting my own personal flaws. It sounds harsh, but if there's anything I took from my time volunteering in Morocco, it’s that I wasn't as selfless as I first thought. How? The challenges of living in a developing country brought out some of my worse characteristics. I found myself continually frustrated when things didn’t happen how I thought they should. It took me a while to accept that just because something is done differently, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I was too self-absorbed to recognize that I wasn't in my country and that it was ridiculous to expect others to adapt to the way my country did things. It was scary to put myself in that position but by dealing with these challenges, instead of remaining frustrated, I learned invaluable lessons about myself, lessons that are still changing my thoughts, beliefs, and actions today.
In the end though, I don't think there is one ultimate, definable change that happens to someone in the volunteer role -- and there shouldn't be. Constantly trying to first recognize and second be open to these changes is what makes the long term positive effects from volunteering stronger and more influential. I can safely say that I am not a perfectly humble, generous, understanding, patient, informed, empathetic, and changed person just because I volunteered. But I’m slowly getting there.
Deep down inside, we all want to feel that we contributed, added value and had some kind of meaning and purpose in our lives. Giving to others helps to feel that we’ve made that difference and helped to alleviate the crisis in somebody else’s life. Whichever way you look at it, giving back to society has profound benefits for both the giver and the recipient. The potential for strengthening people and nations through giving back to society is huge and something that we all need to consider looking into. Here’s hoping that you are inspired to give and contribute to society in whichever shape or form in your life.
Currently, I am on a mission to create meaningful changes in this world for the better. Stay tuned from what's to come on my end :)