The ‘Real’ Junior Fellow

22 Aug

I am a Junior Fellow. After a rigorous application and interview process, I was selected for my outstanding leadership qualities, my extreme intellect, and my exceptional ability to connect and empathize with people. After months of carefully directed personal growth, I arrived in a developing African country and immediately dove into the complexities of creating systemic change. Within a week, I had settled in with a host family in an impoverished, isolated village that remains untouched by Western influence. I was deeply moved by the kindness, nobility, and strength of these people who remain cheerful in the face of extreme poverty and institutionalized injustice. I was consumed by a deep, insatiable curiosity about my new community, so I immersed myself in the culture by becoming fluent in the local language, acquiring a wardrobe of traditional clothing, and helping everyone with their daily chores (like washing clothes by hand, cooking over an open fire, carrying water for miles from the nearest well, building mud huts, etc.)

Of course, all of these things challenged me, but I adapted quickly and soon it was like I had lived in this place my whole life. I found that my dedication to family life paid off for my work; the depth of my integration in the community allowed me to create social change in ways that no other foreigner had been able to in the past. I was never lonely because each day was filled with deep, life-changing conversations with Dorothy figures. I rarely had interactions with other expatriate aid workers because I was more content spending time with locals. However, in the few conversations I shared with other mzungus I was able to completely alter people’s perspectives on foreign aid, global systems, and the role of NGOs in development.

Rather than taking any vacation days, I took three days off work to simultaneously battle malaria, bedbugs, a rampant hippopotamus, and an existential crisis. I came out of the experience a stronger, more soulful person, and dove right back into my work to make up for lost time. Throughout all of this, I was able to stay in close contact with my university chapter, family and friends back home, and was able to challenge Canadians’ stereotypes about Africa and poverty. To wrap up my placement, I gave a stunning presentation and written report to EWB and our partner organization. Then my coach and I worked together to completely revise our Venture’s long-term strategy (based on insights from my powerful on-the-ground experience). I will return home to become president of my university chapter, recruit a new Junior Fellow with even more potential than myself, and act as a perspective-altering coach for countless Chapter members. I know, from both my overseas experience and from my passionate commitment to EWB, that I will never be content unless I dedicate my life to social change. When I graduate next year, I will apply to work for a few years with an African Venture, while also publishing a groundbreaking collection of memoirs, stories, and critical essays based on my JF experiences. 

I am a Junior Fellow. But this is not me. This is a single story of what the JF experience could be. I think that elements of this story are probably true for every JF, but I also feel that this story excludes the nuances, hardships and failures that make each JF placement unique. Yet this story is what people, including myself, have come to expect of all Junior Fellows.

One of our first assignments for Foundation Learning was to watch and respond to Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk about “The Danger of a Single Story”. This is a great talk, which highlights how damaging it can be if we never question our own assumptions or seek out varying, genuine perspectives. I believed that the point of the assignment was to challenge our preconceptions of African people. However, I wish that I could have seen then how this talk could be used as a mirror to look more deeply into the single story that was surrounding my own life.

Before I delve into the dangers of this particular single-story, I should explain the realities of my JF experience. By every measure that should matter to me, I have had a successful placement. My work has led to better results than I ever expected. I’ve achieved nearly all of the learning goals I set at the beginning of the placement. I feel that Ugandan culture has changed my understanding of the world. I’ve had good relationships with my host-family, coach, work-partner, fellow JFs, and other AVC staff. I’ve stayed mentally and physically healthy, and still challenged myself to engage with uncomfortable situations. Most of all, I’m eager to keep contributing to EWB as a Returned Junior Fellow.

Now here’s the problem: throughout this challenging, educational, perspective-changing, love-filled experience I have been plagued with overwhelming feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Let’s call these feelings ‘The Ghost of Junior Fellows Past’… actually, I can’t be bothered to type that out again. What’s a really short name? Let’s go with Jane.

Jane represents the “ideal” Junior Fellow from the beginning of the post. Jane is a legend who inspires countless students across Canada. But when you get to know Jane a bit better, you realize that she’s completely over-the-top and generally unhealthy. Jane has been haunting me all summer, and her specter-ly mission has been to evaluate my every action and decision. When my actions line up with her ideal, she tells me that I’m being a fantastic person. When I do something that strays from the ideal, she is there nagging me, whispering, “You’re not a real Junior Fellow. You obviously don’t care enough about people living in poverty. You will make no difference in the world. All of your EWB friends will lose respect for you. You’re just another naive volun-tourist looking to pad your resume. You are a fraud. Just go home now.”

Where do these warped thoughts come from? Some of the feelings of inadequacy come from unrealistic standards that I’ve set for myself, but others come from outside expectations. We have been repeatedly told by our Program Manager, “The only expectation is that you will become your best, but not for yourself. Become your best to best serve humanity.” However, I have never felt that this is actually the only expectation, and other JFs have said the same.

When “your best” and “to best serve humanity” are implicitly being held in comparison with mythic characters like Jane and their legendary actions, it’s almost impossible for any human being to feel like they are enough. This is the danger of having a single Junior Fellowship story. The problem is not that there aren’t enough JF stories out there; I think the problem is that only one specific kind of JF story is perceived as “real” or “right” or “good enough” or whatever…

For years I have loved hearing RJFs’ stories about their most interesting, exciting and life-changing experiences. They definitely influenced my decision to apply to the program, and I am happy that I did. I will probably tell a lot of similar stories, and might end up perpetuating this single-story. But I will also remember how hard it has been to overcome my feelings of inadequacy, so I will try to also share the stories of my own imperfections and shortcomings. I’d like to ensure that future JFs know that it’s okay to be human.

When I come home, I expect that I will be bombarded with that ever-dreaded question: How was Africa?

If you ask me that, I will share a fun tidbit about my summer and move on. But if you really want to talk, try asking me about something unexpected. Ask me why I didn’t live in a village, didn’t learn the local language, and didn’t buy a wardrobe of “cultural” clothing. Ask me about how I did not get sick. Ask me what I think of the shopping malls in Kampala, or the hilltop café in Masaka, or my host-mother’s favourite TV show. Ask me about my most boring day, or how useless I felt after being stood up for meetings for three days in a row.

I have had a fantastic experience as a Junior Fellow this summer but I think that it’s only fair to let you know that I’m still human. And I’m just as open to talking about the lacklustre parts of the experience as am to talking about the exciting parts.



P.S. I’m looking forward to seeing y’all in Alberta soooooon!


11 Responses to “The ‘Real’ Junior Fellow”

  1. Annie Wang August 22, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

    Another fantastic post Julia! Honestly, (and you will probabaly hate me for saying this 😉 ) your blog is one of the best blogs I have ever followed. This post, once again, raises so many interesting questions my mind is just turning around and around right now.

    I can’t WAIT to see you when you’re back! I’m so gald to hear you’ve been healthy, and wish you a great debrief and reintegration in Toronto! 🙂


  2. Marilyn James/ Marvin Milner August 23, 2013 at 4:08 am #

    Brilliant! Can’t wait to see you home again.

  3. Subash S August 23, 2013 at 7:06 am #

    First off, I am so happy to hear you are healthy, and you are coming home soon. This post was quite thoughtful and reflective. Thank you for challenging the stereotype of Jane, the “ideal” Junior Fellow. I can see you have become so strongly self-aware that you have recognized that the preconceived misconceptions, the trials and tribulations of your work are vital to reveal. Moreover, I am proud that you see the tales of hardship and disappointment are as important to recount as your successes and cheerful memories. It takes a lot of candor to speak so openly and accurately about something that you are so dedicated and passionate about. I find your self-deprecating sense of humor shows how frank you are. I wish you all the best, and a safe journey home Julia!

  4. ellengillies August 23, 2013 at 9:38 am #

    Reblogged this on A lot of stories .

  5. hbatten2013 August 23, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    Reblogged this on Ubuntu and commented:
    A powerful post about a hidden dialogue perpetuated for a long time

  6. Anna August 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    This absolutely blew me away. Communication talent aside (which is difficult to do, because you seem to possess a lot of it), you’ve managed to hit on one of those rare “cross-human realities” with your own experiences, bringing both a truth to be told about the JF program, and something for the rest of us need to stop, and think, and and think some more about. I haven’t named my Jane yet, but I think I’m starting to see her. Thanks.

  7. Anita Lazurko August 23, 2013 at 1:27 pm #

    Your blog has been amazing to follow and I really appreciate all the thought and honesty that has gone into it! I really can’t wait to see you when you get back to Toronto 🙂 Safe travels.


  8. brianvenne August 23, 2013 at 1:47 pm #

    Thanks for sharing what lots of EWB folks have felt over the years. Jane, which also applies to the long term volunteers, still haunts me from time to time years after the fact. Great blog post!

  9. Robbie Brydon August 23, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    Awesome. That first section had me on the edge of outright laughter the whole way. My one note is that most of us like to hear about the exciting and sexy parts more than the boring ones…so expect to tell those more. Failures and frustrations can make for fascinating stories, though.

    I think this issue has been around for a while. Despite the fact that they did heavy expectation control in my JF year, I still suffered from a case of the ‘not good enoughs’ – mind you, a lot of those expectations coming from me were independent of EWB. Amusingly, my blog from that summer is still online. You can check it out if you want to see the crazy thoughts that were going through my head, how similar and different yours might have been, the way that many placements are filled with struggles and failures, and perhaps implicitly how things have changed a bit around EWB. Here’s the link:

    FYI, I crashed two months after getting home. If you’re ever up in the middle of the night and need someone to talk to, give me a shout (that’s the one truly great thing about the time difference). Ditto to the rest of the JF crew, especially you, Hannah, since I know more of your story already.

    Have a safe trip home and savour the things (and people!) you’ve missed,

  10. Rebecca August 24, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    Thank you for expressing so many of the emotions and conflicts I have heard form JFs across the network.


  1. The Final Post | Beyond Complicated - January 4, 2014

    […] The ‘Real’ Junior Fellow – looking at ‘single stories’ and unhealthy expectations […]

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