Do you like to spend your holiday lying on the beach or in a hammock? Elena Nera (24) certainly doesn’t. Every summer she rolls up her sleeves somewhere in the world as a volunteer. This year she wants to work for WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) in her home country, Italy.
Photo Anne van der Heijden
Between her Bachelor’s in Italy and her Master’s in Plant Sciences in Wageningen, Elena spent a whole year doing voluntary work. ‘I helped with communication for a refugee reception centre in Italy. That meant going into schools with a refugee and telling children where refugees come from and why.’ During the same gap year, Elena also went to Argentina. ‘That’s where my mother comes from. Spanish is my second language.’
Elena had decided on a gap year because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next. ‘My Bachelor’s degree was very broad and I wanted to do something in agriculture because that’s about the environment and development, looking at both sustainability and social processes. I don’t want to focus strongly on specifics; I would rather keep an overview.’ Elena looked for an agricultural university and ended up in Wageningen. ‘I thought it was boring here at first and very, very small. The total opposite of Rome, where I come from.’ But she changed her mind after some time. ‘It is very international. I meet new people all the time.’
That is what appeals to Elena about voluntary work too. ‘I’ve been to three different summer camps now, all on different topics and in different countries. It is a relatively easy way of travelling because it is usually cheap and you don’t have to organize a lot of things. It is also a very active form of holiday.’ Elena has taught English in Thailand, helped with nature conservation in Switzerland and looked after children in a summer camp in Florida. It is a nice way of exploring countries, she has found. ‘In Thailand I stayed with a host family in a very small village. When I went travelling around the country after that I was so amazed at the difference between that life and the Thailand that tourists see. It is not the same at all.’