For the past thirty years, volunteering opportunities have gone through a massive democratization process. Volunteerism has truly become a world of its own. Yet, a volunteer can now describe anyone. From the hardened experienced humanitarian worker working for big NGO machines, to the college student offering his time—and money—to business-like organizations tapping into their white savior complex, through the recent graduate or young worker looking to expand his horizon by jostling his comfort zone in state-sponsored youth organizations. So, what does it mean to volunteer? What drives someone to drop the classic scheme of formal development promoted by our societies to go abroad in foreign land? What do you get out of it? Last month, Atahan Gökçe, former European Voluntary Service (EVS) volunteer, flew back to his home city of Istanbul, after spending 90 days in Macedonia for Volunteers Centre Skopje (VCS) and contributing to VOICES magazine. We sat down together, just a day prior to his departure, to shed some lights on these interrogations.
Atahan developed, from a very young age, a craving for Arts. He especially grew a strong urge to draw, to outline the gross traits of a charming character, to witness its contours materialize as his hand sinuously, delineates its shape through the chalk point of his pencil. Hence, he quickly bred a calling for drawings of characters and caricatures, giving life to models. Very soon, he looked up ways to fulfill his craving, to live off, and by, his passion. To make it his life. He found out about the nationwide famous Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, the most prestigious in the country to his saying, host of big names of both high and popular culture, such as Maya Kulenovic, Nazmi Ziya Güran or Nuri Bilge Ceylan. He would only have to look across the Bosphore, from his home nest of Kadıköy, towards the shores of Europe, between Karaköy and Beşiktaş, to start dreaming about pushing the doors of this celebrated temple of Arts. He made it his goal to be part of that national elite, among the ranks of the guardians of Turkish cultural refinement.
He never stopped drawing, constantly creating, giving life to shapes out of thin blank papers. As a child, he taught himself the workings of Adobe software, such as Photoshop or Illustrator. He eventually left Istanbul for Eskişehir to study at Anadolu University, where he planned his preparation for the highly selective talent entrance exam of Sinan University. There, Atahan joined a one-paged black-and-white student newspaper, where he would write small posts and publish regular caricatures. He explains that those caricatures allowed him to “improve [his] skills” and develop his abilities to discern the defining traits, facial and bodily features of anyone’s character. Hence, Atahan refined his craft, broadening his scope beyond the two-dimensional world, onwards precise realist portraits, puppeteering and 3d design. He eventually achieved his dream and was accepted in his dream Sinan Fine Arts university, infiltrating this exclusive artistic elites through the big gates, into stage and costume design studies. Skills that would prove significantly valuable and appreciated during his EVS project.
His experience there, his first outside of his comfort zone, laid the groundwork for his motivation to go on abroad to volunteer. “I felt like a grown man” he says, thinking: “I was alone at a different city, I tried to survive by myself”. In the volunteer’s corner of our office, with fellow colleagues and friend chatting and working in the background, he tells me how he grew from this feeling of “survival”—as he puts it— ; essentially this sensation to be pushed out of your comfort zone, and how he missed these intimate challenges when he came back in Istanbul: “I wanted to live three months abroad, without my friends, without my family, it was a unique experience for me. I wanted to be alone maybe, in this part of my life”.
Atahan was leaving his passion. He had finally reaped the rewards from his hard work. Yet, he needed to grow further, he could not merely stay content with his achieved goals. His level of English didn’t satisfy him. Although he thought about working in opera, ballet or cinema, he was also drawn to journalism, design or editorial cartoons, thanks to his background of print and publish design studies and experience at his student paper in Anadolu : “I didn’t just think about stage and costume design. I was thinking ‘maybe I can be a designer next, designer or journalist maybe…I can mix’”. More importantly, he wanted to achieve one of the most invaluable soft skill there is:“My department costume and stage design is a teamwork job. Totally…light director, set-director, director, we need to be a team”. As much as Sinan fulfilled him, it did not fully provide him the perfect betterment of his professional and personal goals. Academic education has its limits. Atahan understood that. He rightfully concluded that an informal educational experience, the likes offered by the EVS, could provide for his needs.
Meanwhile, VCS published an open call for a three-months EVS media and educational project, particularly looking for Turkish volunteers. The latter primary responsibility involved working for, and contributing to, VOICES magazine, as well as offering workshops to young people based on the volunteer’s acquired skills. “My cousin sent me that project, because it was similar to my old department”, the timing couldn’t be more right. At the end of his studies, Turkish law would require him to be drafted in the military, something he did not particularly desired: “It would be an experience for me, but it wouldn’t be an opportunity” he says, laughing. By postponing his graduation, Atahan could buy some time away from the boots and perfect his soft skills before entering the job market. He sent his application and, next thing he knew, he put down his luggage in one of VCS’ apartment :“[In Skopje] I felt the same emotions and same things [as in Eskişehir] …I shared my room with different people from different countries. It was interesting. It was totally fine. We shared our cultures…food. It was so educational”.
Atahan fully blended with the give-and-take philosophy of the EVS. “To share is to gain” as one trainer of volunteers once put it. Atahan gave, but received too: “I learned team-work with the magazine …I learned some programs I didn’t know about” and the mere joy of sharing his knowledge benefited him: “I feel happy, because I shared my experience with Macedonian youngsters”. He broke the glass window of language, now feeling “relaxed” about speaking in English, where before it would make him “nervous” and a “little bit shy”. In just three months, Atahan did not only achieved all his set personal goals, but his skills thrilled the team in VCS. He designed sketches for a potential new logo, offered a series of drawing workshops, worked with puppeteer masters, and excited little kids in Shutka’s daycare facility, attracting crowds of fascinated little heads admiring and contributing to large-scale drawings of wildlife scenery. He offered new insights and new inspirations in his article designs, and helped his fellow volunteers with his qualified skills in Adobe software. “Sharing experience, added new experience. Improve yourself, being in a team. I learned all of that. Those are my top points”. Atahan grew, but he helped others grow.
The night before we talked, he recommended the experience to one of his closest friends, just as he had been recommended a year prior. He spread the seeds of generosity around him, simply by consciously jumping out of his contentment. Like Atahan, we all have something to share, and something to gain. He left his mark on Skopje, like Skopje left its mark on him. We can all do it. We can all impact our environment around us, and mould our world to our liking, and, in the process, grow, develop and better ourselves. All it takes is to make the move, everything else will follow. That, perhaps, is what it means to volunteer.