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Building ASEAN Community: How Youth Can Serve as the Driving Force

This is a full interview of Dao Nguyen, STEAR Co-President with Joanne Agbisit from the ASEAN Secretariat on youth engagement in Southeast Asia. It was featured on "The ASEAN" Magazine Issue 2, June 2020.

Dao with 49 ASEAN Volunteers in Langkawi Island, Malaysia under the ASEAN Youth Volunteer Program.

J: I am happy to meet you virtually. You said you are in Europe.

D: Yes, I am completing my joint master’s degree under the Erasmus Mundus scholarship.

J: In which City?

D: This semester, I am studying in Krakow, Poland.

J: First of all, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. As I said in my email, we got your contact details from our colleagues here at the ASEAN secretariat since you were one of the participants in a training program. We saw in your CV that you’ve had a lot of volunteer work experience, especially in ASEAN activities. That is what we want to talk about because we are going to feature youth volunteerism in the ASEAN magazine.

J: Can you describe to us how you got started in your volunteer work? At what age did you start volunteering?

D: My journey begins with an internship at the ASEAN National Secretariat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The awareness of our regional cooperation urged me to involve in volunteering and making positive impacts on our community. As soon as this idea popped up in my mind, I applied for the ASEAN Youth Volunteer Program in Malaysia in the summer of 2018, and fortunately, the National University of Malaysia selected me as the Head of Vietnamese Delegation.

The one-month program was eye-opening for me and changed my perspective and perhaps life purpose after experiencing the adversity that people in Langkawi Island have to endure for the rest of their lives. I realized that I had taken everything I had for granted, and there were many problems I did not even notice just because they are not problems for me personally. That is why my core value when volunteering at that time, and even until now, is to protect the underprivileged.

Another milestone for my journey is when I served as the ASEAN Youth Advocate at the United Nations SDGs Action Campaign. Basically, my work was to build awareness among people in ASEAN about the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. We tried to reach out and listen to the concern of ordinary people, represent the needs of various classes in our society. As such, the whole program collected more than 10000 opinions across the region, and the report was submitted to the United Nations in New York, the ASEAN Secretariat, and 10 national governments of ASEAN Member States.

J: At what age did you start? In college?

D: It’s in college.

J: So what motivated you to join all these activities in the first place?

D: My university in Vietnam belongs to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and thereby I was somehow exhausted by assisting high-level meetings and wearing formal clothing. More importantly, I felt like there was a lack of focus on the underrepresented group when it comes to the policymaking process. I want to hear their voices, I also want their voices to be heard, and the only way to address my curiosity is to volunteer.

I started my first program, and the second, then the third one. Trust me, it never feels bad to do volunteer. Doing something selfless to the people who in need will nurture the feeling of well-being and satisfaction also.

Besides, volunteering brings a strong understanding of the region to my outlook. What is the easiest way for you to understand a region with more than 9 official languages, 650 million people, and tons of religions, traditions, and customs? Volunteer. It creates a sense of belonging, and facilitate regional solutions and meaningful dialogues. In a world full of uncertainties and distrust, we, as one community, need it more than ever.

J: What kind of volunteer work do you do now? Are you involved in any volunteer activity now while you are studying abroad?

D: Yes. I am the Director of the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership (AASYP). We seek to build on the strong relationship between ASEAN and Australia by inspiring the next generation of change-makers. Last December, we established our inaugural ASEAN-Youth Young Leader Forum. It is the very first forum in the region gathering ASEAN and Australian youth together to enhance the cooperation between the two parties. We aim to build a strong regional network of like-minded young people and design and implement projects to improve ASEAN-Australia relations.

ASEAN Youth Social Journalist 2019 in Brunei

J: How did you manage that while studying?

D: Allocating tasks and engaging every member of the team are crucial to managing such a multicultural team. I tried to divide the workload equally between my colleagues, so no one felt overwhelming. Besides, as we come from different countries, learning how to work and communicate remotely also helped me a lot.

J: I know volunteering is hard work, but I’m sure you have enjoyed it since you were involved in many volunteer activities. Can you tell us your most favorite story about your volunteer work? What was the most memorable or enjoyable experience for you?

D: I can tell you a couple of experiences. Let’s come back to my volunteer in Malaysia. I spent my time in Langkawi island where we lived with the locals. Malaysia’s culture is completely different from Vietnam, and I found it struggling to communicate with them as I do not understand the Malaysian language. However, my host father and mother did not give up on me. They always tried to feed me with good food and organized integrating activities for the volunteers, such as the BBQ party or sightseeing.

J: So you lived with a local family?

D: Yeah. Me and 12 other volunteers lived under the same roof, we eat, sleep, smile, and even suffer together. It was my first experience and I really felt like I was a part of the community and dived into a new culture.

J: What do you remember about their local practices?

D: I remember I could eat Malaysian food because it is too spicy and salty for me, so I always ate very little. Probably I was the only volunteer who could not enjoy the local cuisine, so my host family did cook extra dishes, often the less spicy ones, for me so I could eat more.

J: What was your other story? You said you had two?

D: In February, I came back to Bangkok from Prague to join a youth forum. Can you believe I overcome roughly 8500 kilometers just to see my ASEAN friends? Someone told me that not a line in your resume or an opportunity to go abroad, but true friendships are the most precious thing you will get when you volunteer. I echo it. Image when you come to Hanoi, Bangkok, Jakarta, Singapore, or any Southeast Asian cities and there will always open arms to welcome you, this is what volunteering offers you. That is how volunteering brings people together and creates a sense of belonging within the ASEAN Community.

Cultural Night, Young ASEAN Leaders Policy Initiative - YALPI 2020, Bangkok, Thailand

J: What insights can you share about volunteer work? How do you think you benefited or gained personally from volunteering?

D: I have been living in the city and did not know all the hardships of the underprivileged class. When I get to know more about their arduous conditions through volunteering, I cultivate my empathy for others, though I did not know about them before. Scientifically, the London School of Economics even found that people who volunteer often are happier, as volunteering is an empathy booster, and empathy increases our life satisfaction.

Furthermore, I have been involving in practical work that can actually contribute to the positive changes in the policy-making process. In almost all of the conferences, we have to come up with a policy recommendation. Going to the field, listening to the stories, and observing what they are doing and how they live, helped volunteers like me propose practical solutions to the government and ASEAN secretariat. This is the most valuable thing I have learned doing volunteer work.

The last take-away is cultural understanding. Before I joined volunteer programs, I had a vague idea about other religions, other cultures. Only after we were forced to interact with one another, live with each other 24/7 that we started to develop the multicultural mindset, which is definitely crucial for every youngster in the globalization era. I only knew that I cannot hold hands with a woman in Muslim countries after my first volunteer abroad.

J: Has your involvement in ASEAN volunteer activities made you more aware that you are an ASEAN citizen, not just a Vietnamese citizen?

D: Definitely. Whenever I participate in any program and dialogue outside ASEAN, people do expect me to represent not only my country, Vietnam but also the whole ASEAN, as I have been involved in many ASEAN activities. Not only me, but I can see my youngsters nowadays identify themselves as ASEAN citizens when they come to different programs in the world. Volunteering, in other words, people-to-people exchange, is the most effective way to create a sense of belonging within our community.

J: What is the hardest part of the downsides of volunteering?

D: I think the hardest part for me is financial support. I do know that many people in my country want to do volunteer work, but don’t really have a chance to join. Taking the program in Malaysia for example, we received 1500 applications, but the organizers can only select 50. Therefore, 1450 youngsters did not have an opportunity to get involved. I am thankful for the fruitful experience, yet I also hope that the ASEAN Secretariat when adjusting the budget for the ASEAN Youth Plan can create more space for passionate youth.

Previously, I worked as a youth advocate for the UN and worked for SDG awareness. I wanted to engage more people in my work, as many as possible, but I didn’t have the money to go to remote areas. People who have underprivileged backgrounds do not even have phones or the Internet so they could really speak out about what they need. It’s a barrier to my volunteering work.

ASEAN Advocate Program, UN SDGs Action Campaign, United Nations House, Hanoi, Vietnam

J: Do you have any regrets that you devote so much of your time volunteering and not for other things such as leisure?

D: I don’t regret the time I devote to volunteer work. I also spend my free time hanging out with my ASEAN friends when we have no activities

Also, joining volunteer activities is good for my resume. When people think of hiring me, they will realize that I have a social responsibility to contribute to society, to the region, and the world. And it is definitely evidence of a responsible person.

Hence, it is not a waste of time. It is investing my time to do many things at the same time—working, volunteering, helping the community, and making friends.

J: Do you think that volunteering is worth it? Will you encourage other youth to do so? How?

D: Yes, I think volunteering must have a concrete purpose. If you want to join a program just because you hope to go to another country, see the world, and make friends, it is nothing wrong with this, but I am sure they will not choose you among other applicants. They are investing money in you, with the hope that you can make bigger impacts on your community and society.

I do encourage everyone to volunteer, of course, for purposes. It is not necessary to participate in fully-funded programs of the ASEAN Secretariat right in the beginning, you can start with your community. It does not matter how many people you can help, it is the goodwill behind your actions that counts.

J: How would you encourage other young people? Do you plan to reach out to them through your current affiliations or networks?

D: I believe people in my generation are ambitious, passionate, and willing to change the world. The only problem is that many people do not have faith in themselves. They do not imagine that they can be the ones who make differences. That is why we need youth empowerment from the government, from society, and most importantly, from youngsters themselves. I have been reaching out to many youngsters, and many of them have reached out to me and ask for advice for volunteering or applying. My only advice is “those who take risks are more likely to be successful”. Embrace any challenges and you will find your true strength inside you.

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