Cartier Masthead Final Weeks

Finally living my dream in 2016

Sophia Dickinson

An announcement in Indonesian comes over the PA system – I catch the words for ‘toilet’ and ‘you’, I can only guess the context.

The scenery changes from shiny high rises and cars to tin shacks dangling over the river’s edge. I watch a woman chuck something onto a smouldering pile of rubbish. People around me eat chicken and rice from KFC with their right hand. I’m on the train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta, about to embark on a year-long volunteer assignment. My tummy is tingling – I’m not sure if it’s emotional or physical. I hope I don’t have to use the train toilet.

Volunteering overseas has been a long-term goal of mine. It’s been almost five years since a careers counsellor at university told me about this volunteer program which gives skilled Australians the opportunity to go overseas to help develop the capacity of organisations in developing countries. There have been times when I thought my applications (yes I applied multiple times) would never be successful, times when I wanted to give up because it was too hard, times when I questioned if my goal was even worthwhile. None of that matters now that I’m here, living my dream.

I want to share my journey with you, both the practical and emotional parts, in the hope it will inspire you to give your dreams a chance. If you’re already on what seems like a long road to achieving your goal, I hope my story will encourage you to keep going.

Never give up

Some people have asked me why I’d want to leave my family, a good job and fulfilling personal life in Canberra; some of my loved ones are even hurt by my decision. I’m a proud Canberran, born and raised, however I have always wanted to experience life outside Canberra. I’ve been lucky in that Canberra has given me lots of opportunities to study and work in fields I’m interested in, pursue creative outlets such as performing and writing and it’s where most of my very supportive family and friends live. I think one of the main things that draws me away is the challenge of surviving on my own in a different city with a different culture, where things don’t come my way so easily. I believe this experience will make me better at my job and help me appreciate what I have in Canberra more.

I think it’s important to respect your feelings and those of your loved ones.

I know this overseas assignment is something I have to do, if not I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. I know my parents worry about me, so I make time to touch base with them regularly. I make sure I at least contact the rest of my family and friends on special occasions such as their birthdays. I brought a box of letters, cards and mementos from loved ones, for those times when I need encouragement and reminders of why I’m here. My younger sister gave me a notebook which I take to my Indonesian language classes. On the first page she wrote, ‘Never give up’. It helps me get through those frustrating moments when it gets all too hard.

Your dream isn’t over until you give up. You can’t predict when you will achieve your goal or how long it will take. There are some things you can put a timeframe on, for example by this time next year I want to save x amount of money for y, so I have to save z dollars each week.

There are many things, frustratingly so, that you cannot control.

As you’ve probably heard before, you just have to focus on what you can do. In my case, once I decided I wanted to specialise in communication and media, I got a post graduate qualification in the field and relevant professional experience. Also consider every opportunity that comes your way, even if it isn’t what you expected. The clincher for me, what gave me the winning edge to finally get the opportunity I wanted, was diversifying my professional experience. I worked in a client communication team for three years, which I loved, but my application was only successful once I branched out into a media advisor role.

I thought I’d get a job overseas as soon as I finished my graduate certificate, but that was two years ago. I applied for over 20 jobs in 2014, none of my applications were successful. At times, I got really discouraged. Then the opportunity to become a media advisor in the department I was already working for came up. I thought ‘why not?’, given I wasn’t leaving Canberra anytime soon. I stopped applying for jobs outside Canberra because I was enjoying my challenging and exciting new role. Then one day in May the latest volunteer assignments popped up in my newsfeed, I spotted this role in Indonesia and it seemed perfect for me.

I knew I had to apply.

So many experiences that I’d had throughout my life suddenly had a new meaning because they were relevant to this assignment. Obviously I had the right professional experience and qualifications, but I’d done many other things that were unexpectedly applicable. The fact that I lived in France a year showed the selection panel that I am able to manage living away from my home and family for an extended period.

The volunteer work I did with the Society of St Vincent de Paul gave me a strong understanding of child protection policies, which is a requirement of this program. The organisation I wanted to work for has a regular radio segment, so they were impressed that I had done some radio announcer training at a Canberra community radio station. It just goes to show that no experience is ever a waste, you never know when that knowledge will be useful.

Get help

Never underestimate the value of getting other people’s help and input to achieve your goal. In my case, I needed help with job applications. I did some professional workshops which gave me new ideas on how to approach my goal and target my resume. I felt good about doing something constructive towards achieving my goal. I also asked some very kind colleagues and friends to review my written applications.

Their feedback was invaluable.

Their knowledge of the program and field I wanted to work in helped me tailor my application strategically. It also helped me realise if my examples weren’t conveying the message I meant them to. And of course, getting someone with fresh eyes to do a last minute spelling and grammar check is a must – selection panels will notice mistakes and judge you for it.

Do your research

Research doesn’t have to be formal or boring, it can be as simple as chatting to people about your goal. I found out about this volunteer program from a career advisor. Once I finally got my assignment, some well-travelled friends gave me fantastic advice about what to pack. Bringing a surge-protected power board means I don’t have to worry about my laptop blowing up if it’s plugged in during a power surge. Also I can charge multiple things at once even though I only have one adaptor. It’s amazing how many things we do using electronic devices these days – everything from brushing our teeth to reading! Another friend told me about a debit card that doesn’t have any international transaction or currency conversion fees (it’s real and it’s awesome – Google it).

There’s also a plethora of useful information on the internet, so take the time to search for it.

I arrived in Indonesia during wet season. It rains every afternoon, sometimes only for twenty minutes, sometimes for hours. I can’t avoid being out and about when I rains sometimes, so practical footwear is essential. I was planning to bring sandals, the supportive kind that you get from athletic footwear shops. I know from previous travel experience that my feet need to be well-supported and cool if I’m doing lots of walking. The problem was that many sandals designed for walking are leather and smell if they get wet. I googled ‘What shoes should I wear in rainy season’, which lead me to a blog by someone living in Thailand. This person recommended rubber shoes for wet season. I’ve been living in a pair of sandals with a thick rubber sole, which supports my feet and elevates them away from mud and puddles.

Get organised early

If you’re leaving Canberra for an extended period, you’ve gotta think about what you’ll do with your stuff – house, car, furniture and household items, pets. Yes it’s a long and painful process, but totally worthwhile. Weigh up whether it’s better to keep your stuff or get rid of it. Make sure you plan ahead because it will cost you money, you have to factor that into your budget. You’re also more likely to get friends and family to help you out if you discuss it with them early, rather than springing it on them last minute.

There are some important things, like applying for visas and getting the amazing fee free debit card, that just take time and can’t be done at the last minute.

I worked out that I’d lose less money if I put my car in storage for the year than if I sell it and have to buy a new one when I get back. Even better, my sister has room in her garage for it so I don’t have to pay for storage and she’s going to drive it occasionally for me. I don’t have a lot of household stuff because I’ve been renting a fully furnished share house, but there’s still plenty of stuff I want to keep.

I did a big clean out a couple of months ago and sold stuff I don’t want to keep at a trash and treasure market (although I probably would have got more money if I’d bothered to sell stuff online). Then I packed up the stuff I’m keeping in my parent’s garage. Again, I’m lucky that my family could help me out, but I could have afforded storage if I needed to.

Think about what you’ll do after you’ve achieved your goal

When I went to France to teach English, I was sure I’d live there happily ever after. I quit my job and sold my car in Canberra, my few household items were pack up in my parent’s garage. Even though my job contract and visa were only temporary, I expected to stay in France permanently. The only plan I had once my contract finished was to apply for the same job again. I didn’t get the job the second time around. I came home to Canberra bewildered and disappointed. I had no job, no car and no savings.

After I finished uni all I wanted to do was live in France. Once I’d done that, I had no idea what to do with my life. Luckily my parents let me stay with them and I got temporary work that eventually led to a permanent position. It took me almost a year to get back on my feet.

This time around, I made a proper plan. I want to ensure I have a job when I get back, so I applied for leave without pay.

My advice for anyone wanting leave without pay is know the laws and policies that apply to you and outline why it’s beneficial for your employer to give you leave without pay.

It’s important to understand the rules when discussing leave without pay with your employer so you know what you need to do and to ensure you get what you’re entitled to. Read your workplace policies and find out if there are any laws that apply to your circumstances (for example the MOPS Act, in case you’re going to work for a Member of Parliament). Also think about why it will be advantageous for your workplace to give you leave without pay.

The person who approves it (whether it’s your boss or maybe the HR division) has got to think about the bottom line. They’ll have more incentive to grant you leave without pay if you give them a strong argument as to why the experience you’re gaining while you’re away will be useful to your workplace when you return.

Of course things might not have worked out how I wanted them to. If I didn’t get leave without pay, I was going to start applying for jobs towards the end of my assignment. If I didn’t have a job lined up before I got home, I’d get work through temping agencies again until I got a permanent job. Don’t be put off if things don’t go to plan, you deserve the opportunity to live your dreams and you will survive.

Even though I didn’t get my fairy tale French life and it took me a long time to start over once I got home, I wouldn’t give up that experience for anything. It was the best year of my life so far, I made so many memories and lifelong friendships, and I recovered. I made some mistakes but I learnt from them and feel better prepared for my current adventure because of it.

Now I’m in Indonesia living my dream.

Some days are amazing – there are so many wonderful things to see and do. Some days are challenging – I’m learning so much but it’s not always fun. I’m trying to learn Indonesia, I’m still at the stage where I don’t get it. I just have to practise and revise until it finally sinks in. I have to be patient and forgiving with myself. I’ll probably be confused for most of this year. I might get fed up.

Even with regular contact to my loved ones back home and a bunch of new friends here, I still get homesick and lonely sometimes. I might get overwhelmed by it. If I really want to I can go home early. I know that I will be greeted with love and support. No matter what I’ll know I tried and that is something I can be very proud of.

So I implore every one of you to make 2016 the year you give your dreams a chance. It doesn’t matter how big or small, how trivial or life-changing your goals may seem. You might not achieve them this year, you might not achieve them in the next five years, but you will achieve them. It will take persistence and courage, but it will be worth it. You deserve to live your dreams. You can do it!

Image of ‘Compass on a map…‘ via Shutterstock


Sophia Dickinson

Sophia is a true Canberra girl having been born and raised here, and she now works in the public service. She loves Canberra for all it has given her from a great education, fulfilling work to opportunities to indulge her love of dance and music. She is passionate about travel and writing, and studied post-graduate media and communication. She has appeared in several local amateur theatre productions, although she prefers to be an audience member these days. More about the Author