What comes to mind when you think of Ukraine? Let Mark Thompson from AIESEC Singapore fill you in about the Eastern European country, where he spent six weeks at on an AIESEC exchange programme.
Mark Thompson, 20s
Written by Carolanne Chan
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at AIESEC Singapore.
I am a second year Business student at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and joined AIESEC a year ago. At AIESEC, we manage programmes that enable local students to go on an AIESEC exchange overseas, and help to create opportunities for other AIESECers to come to Singapore for an exchange. Every year, AIESEC Singapore sends more than 200 students overseas.
I am also in charge of the global internship programme and mainly get local companies to open up internship opportunities for overseas students. It gives me the chance to hone important skills that will add value to my resume and degree.
What do you think is the difference between an AIESEC exchange and an overseas student exchange programme organized by local universities?
An AIESEC’s exchange, however, is a six-week non-academic programme. Its core purpose is to generate social impact, while encouraging participants to step out of their comfort zones and build an international network. The AIESEC network currently spans more than a hundred countries.
Tell us about the Global Community Development Programme (GCDP).
GCDP is an exchange programme by AIESEC. It builds on its international network to engage youths worldwide through overseas projects, in hopes of increasing cultural understanding and driving societal changes. AIESEC also focuses very much on leadership development.
I went to Ukraine to volunteer at a summer camp and held classes for the children there. I worked with GCDP volunteers from all around the world, for instance from Tunisia, China, Indonesia, India and Puerto Rico.
Why did you decide to go on the GCDP, and why Ukraine?
I just really wanted to experience Eastern Europe. I applied to other locations such as Poland and the Czech Republic, but Ukraine was the first to get back to me so I took it up.
But that was a year ago. Recently, I got to know and interacted with many people who have been to African and Middle Eastern countries like Bahrain. It was very interesting to hear their experiences and about the different cultures, so I would like very much to explore these regions in the near future.
But anyway, back then, I also realized that I had little international exposure and engagement with issues related to social development. GCDP seemed like a great way to fulfill both objectives, while simultaneously giving me the opportunity to develop myself and experience a country that most of my peers had never ventured to before.
AIESEC’s support network is also very strong where they have programmes, and each of our participants gets paired with a buddy at their exchange locations.
How did you prepare for the trip?
AIESEC gave me some brochures and I spoke to some friends who had been on the GCDP and to Ukraine before. There was also a Facebook page that connected me with the new friends I would make there and gave me a preview of some of the activities I would be doing.
What were some of your expectations before you went on the trip?
I was very excited to visit Eastern Europe because it was my first time there. It is so historically and culturally rich but I was not expecting the luxuries of a Singapore lifestyle, or an easy time communicating or navigating the region.
Were there any surprises when you arrived?
There is so much diversity. Every city is distinct – the language, behaviour and attitudes were all different. It was also very cold when I arrived, but two weeks later, it became even warmer than Singapore!
I was kind of the only Asian in the entire town. I could tell when I got on the bus alone – it was quite a peculiar feeling, because people would stare at me, but I tried my best to act normally.
Very few people there spoke English too, except for the AIESEC students.
How did you cope then?
I was all right because I hung out mostly with the AIESEC students and they were proficient with conversational English. Nevertheless, how well they spoke English really depends on their individual level of interest for the language.
The students there took turns to bring me around even when it was their examinations period then. Their university examination system is pretty interesting, for example, if you were to fail an examination subject for the first time, you can go back the next day for a second attempt.
So while my buddies sat for their examination papers, I roamed around alone, following their tips. I got lost a few times but that taught me to read a few basic but important Cyrillic to get around safely. Nevertheless, Ukrainians – even strangers – love the opportunity to talk and practise speaking English with you.
For example, the parents of my Ukrainian friends would make tea for me and make an effort to communicate with me, even though they spoke very little English. Most of the time, strangers or people I bump into at the shops would try to chat with me too.
What do you think of the Ukrainians?
They are amiable and very friendly. They may look cold at first, but they make friends very quickly. I had no trouble joining their social circles, and many locals gladly showed me around. Some even invited us to join in their activities.
It was possible to spend hours with them just walking, sitting at the park, having a picnic, or swimming in the river. We adapted to the pace of life quite easily and managed to enjoy these simple joys.
The Ukrainians are very proud of their culture, traditions and historical significance in the region. My homestay partner’s parents never stopped showing and sharing with me.
What did they share with you?
Food is one. They have a kind of pasta that is served with meat for breakfast, but I am unsure what the meat is. Most of the time, I would be shown what is for dinner in the fridge, but unfortunately I was unable to tell if it was something special or not, because they hardly spoke English.
They would also always make tea. They drink tea five to six times a day. While we sip tea, they would talk about their culture. Though I could not understand most of what they were saying, but from their gestures, I had a vague idea.
Was arranging for a homestay a huge hassle?
No. The family that hosted me was part of the AIESEC network so they expected me. In fact, accommodation is always arranged for AIESEC exchange participants.
During my homestay, there was a week when we had no running water because my host family did not pay the bills. Then my friend jokingly said to me, “Welcome to Ukraine!” (laughs).
Most of the locals have gotten used to this, but it took me some time to adjust. It was quite memorable.
If you’re interested in participating in an AIESEC exchange programme, check out their website here. More on Ukraine next week!