If you had told me during the final year of my bachelor’s degree that within two years of graduation I would find myself in Sweden, working for a humanitarian aid organisation and beginning to lead my own eco-inspired art exhibition, I probably would have been quite happy, even if I did think you were a bit weird.
Last year in September I graduated with 2:2 honours in mechanical engineering from the University of Wolverhampton. Before even receiving my certificate I had my CV uploaded to every employment website I could find. I sent it to recruiting agencies, companies and anywhere else that might give me an engineering job.
After receiving only a handful of interviews and being told repeatedly that “more experienced persons have applied for this job” I knew I was about to become part of the unemployed statistic they were talking about on the news.
I was sick of formal education by then too, as I never took any years out to travel or save up for university. I’d just turned 23 and had spent every year of my life in education since my firth birthday. My family could never afford to send me on a gap year; my dad’s a self-employed painter and decorator, my mum a cleaner. There was no way I wanted to go back to doing a master’s degree, not that I could afford it. I was pretty sure my £20,000 of debt was enough to pay off, thanks to top-up fees and other loans.
But I had learned about a European voluntary work scheme through a friend from France I met while I was studying. It’s called the European Voluntary Service. It offers young people aged 18 to 30 the chance to volunteer for projects with NGOs abroad for up to 12 months, with no cost to the volunteer. Transport, accommodation, food and medical insurance are all covered, as well as a small allowance. As soon as I knew I needed a break from engineering I decided to apply, knowing it would improve my CV as well as allowing me to pursuing the challenge of living abroad. I was really determined and excited to pursue this opportunity.
First, I had to find a sending organisation. There’s a big database of all the projects and sending organisations from all over the world on the European commission website; just Google “EVS database”.
Sending organisations are there to help you find a placement and take care of a lot of the paperwork and coordination involved. I chose Concordia, an organisation based just outside of Brighton that specialises in sending volunteers abroad for all kinds of projects. My contact there has been really helpful, especially when there have been any issues with my placement.
It was late October when I received an email from an organisation based in southern Sweden I’d been interested in for a while called ABC Sweden. It was an opportunity to work with the field of fair trade; helping out in a fair trade shop ran by the organisation and to create projects and events raising awareness of fair trade and sustainability in the local community. I accepted immediately and that was it, my next 12 months were set. A huge sense of relief set in. I was escaping unemployment and doing something really exciting. Documents were signed, insurance was organised and flights were booked.
Landing at Copenhagen airport I remember there still being snow on the ground in early March. I took the train over the Baltic and into Sweden where I was greeted by my work mentor in Lund, before meeting the board and active members, as well as my EVS colleague, Vanessa, from Germany. I was overwhelmed with the amount of information to take in to begin with. I needed to know more about fair trade before I could spread its message, but I was still figuring out which cartons contained milk and which flour was plain at the local store. I’ve also never felt so totally dependent on strangers before; I needed help with lots of everyday things to get settled in.
Through the spring and summer months I worked with different sustainability and fair trade projects. We created an exhibition on fair trade, in Swedish, and took it with us to local summer festivals in Scania. I helped out at ABC’s spring market and fair trade and eco brunches too. I also worked with an organic gardening project called Ett Grönare Lund (A greener Lund) in which I helped plant organic vegetables with children from Lund.
Today I find myself buried under notes from my Swedish lessons, answering emails, attending meetings with student circles and conversing with truly inspirational and passionate people. I am now using my leadership skills to create a project with the knowledge I have gained over the last eight months; I am directing an eco- and sustainability-inspired art exhibition to be held in February with local artists and students. I’ve always loved artwork and being creative, so it seemed the perfect way to combine my work and passion.
The future for me after this project is still quite hazy. My contract finishes at the end of February next year, but I really want to continue living and working in Sweden after this. I’m not sure what I will work as, but I’d really like to start my own business at some point. Why wait for the world to sort itself out and give me a job when there’s the opportunity to create my own? I think working as a volunteer abroad has given me more confidence and more skills that I could use in other workplaces. As a graduate I think it’s very important to actively seek and create your own opportunities for work. I would definitely recommend work placements abroad just for the experience. It’s a great opportunity to stand out from other graduates.
The original version of this article can be found on Guardian Careers, along with loads more tips, chats and career advice.