Midway through my volunteer year, I couldn't be more blessed

Viviana Garcia-Blanco in a selfie at U.N. headquarters in October 2017 (Viviana Garcia-Blanco)

Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our seventh round of bloggers: Viviana Garcia-Blanco is a Dominican Volunteer at the United Nations and Geri Lanham is a volunteer with the Religious of Jesus & Mary in Gros Morne, Haiti. This is Viviana's first blog post. Read more about her here.

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I am writing this blog post as I return from my Jan. 24-28 midyear retreat with Dominican Volunteers USA, also known as DVUSA. The experience is still fresh in my mind: I can see the beautiful faces of my peers laughing as we exchange late Christmas gifts to each other. I recall the breathtaking California country landscape and the stillness of the horses off in the distant hills, the multicolored, crystal-like fountain that sprung holy water at the entrance of the church inside the motherhouse.

If I had the chance to go back in time and tell my younger self I was going to do a year of volunteer service, I would have not believed myself. Before DVUSA, I had several reservations about volunteer organizations.

The Dominican Volunteers USA midyear retreat was held Jan. 24-28 at the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose motherhouse in Fremont, California. (Provided photo)

From what I had witnessed and experienced, it seemed most people that entered this kind of work had similar qualities: They were white with a hero complex, came from well-off families, and were looking for time to kill until they ultimately applied for grad school. It seemed that most volunteer organizations placed these volunteers in communities of color, with little to no training in terms of understanding the complexities of issues plaguing these individuals and communities. These volunteers had no acknowledgment of personal privilege when it came to serving in these spaces.

I believed that the work volunteers did was always reactive instead of proactive. I questioned volunteers' intentions, whether they truly cared about ministry work and the people they are in community with. I was skeptical, to say the least, but it was my exact skepticism that motivated me to apply to DVUSA. It was time that people like me, a proud and civically engaged brown woman, were reflected in ministry work, contributing to the same cause and standing with the people, not for the people.

In December 2016, I applied to DVUSA and chose to serve in the Dominican Leadership Conference nongovernmental organization at the United Nations. Not only was it a chance for me to put my studies of international affairs to use, but it was also an opportunity for me to explore something other than community-based service. I wasn't sure I was going to get the gig, but I applied regardless and left the rest up to God.

After a couple of weeks and a few interviews, I heard back from the program and found out I got the U.N. position. I had expected to feel elated, but what followed after the news was a series of emotions that could be described as guilt.

At first, it didn't click for me as to why I felt this way. I blamed it on stress, on the anxiety of waiting to hear back from the program that left me drained and my emotions a muddle. It wasn't until after I told my family the news that the real reason I felt guilty finally clicked: I felt guilty because I was leaving home.

As a first-generation Latina and the first in my family to attend a four-year university, this would be the first time anyone in my family moved from Chicago to another state by themselves. I was nervous to start all over again in a new city, make new friends, and establish a support system. Most importantly, I was nervous to leave behind my single mother.

I sought out guidance. I turned to friends and mentors at Dominican University, my alma mater. I prayed. Eventually, I knew the right thing for me to do was to take the position because it was something I was called to do.

The Dominican Volunteers USA office on 46th Street in New York City (Viviana Garcia-Blanco)

All those feelings of skepticism and guilt have passed me. I am midway through my volunteer year, and I couldn't be more blessed.

The people in my volunteer program are truly incredible. We all understand and support one another in our ministry sites and communities. We acknowledge each other's struggles, and we open ourselves up to advice.

Working for a religious nongovernmental organization like the Dominican Leadership Conference has been an eye-opening experience. When I first started out, I thought applying my academic knowledge of global issues would be the only thing that mattered in a position such as this. As time went on, however, I realized that translating academic experience into practical skills was a challenge.

The International Day Against Nuclear Tests event, held Aug. 30, 2017, in the Trusteeship Council Chamber

Classes didn't prepare me for the uphill battle that civil-society groups face when it comes to lobbying for positive international policy changes. I had to learn on my own just how to navigate my way around advocacy dialogues between the private and public sectors, making sure to be extra sensitive and aware of the language I used around these groups, particularly around representatives of member states.

Every day, I learn something new about the complexities of advocating for policy change. In this day and age, I realize how crucial it is to have religious nongovernmental organizations at the table when it comes to international advocacy. These nongovernmental organizations provide meaningful input, as each religious order has sisters, brothers, fathers and laypeople in all parts of the world that serve with underrepresented communities. Religious nongovernmental organizations give voices to marginalized people and are a backbone in civil society.

As time passes, I learn to take things in one day at a time, always with an open mind and an open heart. It's been a challenging but great year so far. U.N. advocacy work takes time and commitment, but most importantly, it takes trust in knowing that one day you will realize the work you are contributing to will make a difference in the grand scheme of things. This could be said for individuals working at the U.N., but it is also true for my peers serving in ministry sites all over the world. Change is slow, but it will come.

[Viviana Garcia-Blanco is a Dominican Volunteer serving as an advocacy associate for the Dominican Leadership Conference nongovernmental organization at the United Nations.]

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