Build Abroad chats with Ken Budd
Ken Budd, author of the award-winning memoir The Voluntourist, has written for The New York Times, Smithsonian, National Geographic, The Washington Post and many more publications. He is the host of 650,000 Hours, a web series that will debut in 2016.
Q: What motto do you live by?
A: I want to live a life that matters.
Q: Have you always been interested in service work?
A: I was turning 40 when my father died very suddenly. That made me question what I was doing with my life. Around that time Rebuilding Together was working in New Orleans. Nothing was planned; it was serendipitous that I went for two weeks to help. I didn’t drop everything to volunteer, but most people don’t have that opportunity.
Q: What were you feeling when you went to New Orleans the first time?
A: Everywhere I went I thought this is a huge mistake. I thought, ‘what am I qualified to do?’ I came to find that you go in thinking you’re going to do this specific thing, but what I kept finding was the real benefits were the interactions that occur between people that would never have happened otherwise. Some people get on an air-conditioned bus and never meet people different from them. This is something that changes the way we see each other.
Q: What was it about your experience in New Orleans that was the tipping point for other volunteer experiences?
A: I was dipping my toe in the volunteering abroad waters and I began to think I could actually do something that may be useful. You’re not going to change the world when you’re volunteering for two weeks, but if we’re all doing a little bit it can be important.
Q: How would you encourage other people to capitalize on their feeling to go and take advantage of that tipping point?
A: It’s a way to see a country in a way you wouldn’t otherwise. You’re submerged in it versus being a tourist in a cocoon. You have to remember it’s not about you, do whatever you’re asked, and smile. Respect the cultural differences and be a small piece in whatever they’re doing and do whatever you can to help.
Q: Why did you write The Voluntourist?
A: I Didn’t start out thinking I was going to write a book. I wrote an article about my experiences in Costa Rica thinking that I would be normal again, but maybe it was the start of the journey rather than the journey. When I talk to people who have read my book they talk about the things that have helped them in their own lives in finding purpose.
Q: You say in your biography that we live better when we live for others – even if its only two weeks at a time – can you speak to this a little more?
A: You go for two weeks but the experience doesn’t end then, or shouldn’t end then. There are financial contributions, creating scholarships that keep you involved and the dialogues continue. It changes how people see each other and even continues via Facebook now.
Q: What kinds of projects have you done like this?
A: I taught English at an elementary school in Costa Rica. In two weeks by the time you get up to speed you have to go. It was a daunting experience doing different lesson plans from 1st to 6th graders. It wasn’t the perfect setup but the kids picked up English just by talking with me. Next was China – teaching English for 2 weeks I paired with one child – to help him write numbers and characters. You start to find that you still find a way to communicate even with the language barriers. Language is both a barrier and not a barrier – we can still make these connections between people. In Ecuador I was with Earthwatch trying to get a handle on climate change. In the West Bank I did a variety of projects in Palestine, working at farms and women’s centers for example. Then in Kenya I worked at a children’s home.