Making a Difference focused on qualitative insights and the experiences and reflections of young people going abroad to volunteer. To research this growing phenomenon, I conducted ethnographic research among young English teachers at Haining High School in China, as well as interviews with a variety of other returned volunteers.
I gained practical experience of designing and carrying out an ethically approved and rigorous research project using ethnography and in-depth interviews as research methods. I analysed the resulting data, and wrote up my conclusions in a 15.000 word dissertation relating it to a bibliography of wider sociological literature. I learnt to take into account the implications of my double role as researcher and participant, of the real-life messiness of social research and its methods, the significance of my ontological and epistemological position as a researcher.
Contrary to media stereotypes and much previous research, I found that young volunteers' narratives of volunteering abroad demonstrate awareness of the tensions between processes of self-actualisation and achieving a positive impact on global issues. They are informed, realistic, and often critical, and consider what they are doing a reflexive project. Negotiating self-realisation and global impacts, they often stress a sense of global collective identity where volunteering is not an individual experience but can contribute long-term to a global civic society. They also often stay involved and actively shape volunteering for subsequent volunteers, expressing agency and activism.