The 100th volunteer to go abroad with Teachers Without Borders: ”Reaching for your dreams gives your life an incredible sense of meaning”

Elina Yli-Hakala first experienced wanderlust as a child when she climbed to the top of a big pine. Today she is an experienced volunteer worker, who never stopped exploring.

This November Elina, soon to turn 70, heads for Cambodia for six months to improve the quality of basic education. This is her third assignment with Teachers Without Borders.

Elina has 33 years of experience as a language teacher in secondary school in the Finnish cities of Kerava and Espoo. After retiring in 2011, Elina was already climbing a mountain in Nepal.

”My grandchildren have learned to trust that their grandma can manage when she’s abroad,” Elina laughs.

Throughout her adult life, Elina has been driven to travel around the world by her endless zest for life and her passion for marathons. She especially remembers the Jerusalem marathon in the late 1990s. On the starting line, Elina noticed that she was one of only two women to participate in the race.

”She was so glad to see me that she walked up to me and hugged me. As the finish line approached, we already knew a lot about each other’s lives.”

From the top of the pine into the wide world

Now living in Järvenpää, Elina is originally from “the backwoods of Kainuu region”, as she puts it.

”Once I made my way out of there, there was no stopping me”, Elina says.

She comes from a family of ten children whose games were rather wild. Keeping up with her brothers required creative thinking. At school, Elina became curious about life outside Kainuu. However, the school could provide the eager pupil with regrettably little information.

One childhood memory from when she was around seven years old remains particularly strong in her mind.

”I climbed to the top of a big pine. The forest and the blue sky seemed to go on forever. That’s when I thought that the wide world was out there, and that one day I would be there too”, she says.

Volunteering here and there, sometimes via Whatsapp

In 2016, Elina volunteered with Teachers Without Borders for the first time, taking part in the Dream School project in the Cambodian province of Battambang. The project’s aim is to raise the quality of basic education and to enhance teachers’ professional competence.

The first career counsellors in the country had just graduated, and Elina was there to train them so that they in turn can continue training future career counsellors. The upcoming trip to Cambodia will be Elina’s third. Her aim is to continue the work on education development that she started in 2016–2017.

”It feels like coming home. It is a privilege to see the results, particularly because you saw how it began.”

Elina volunteers in Finland as well. She does long-distance work by mentoring Ugandan teachers via Whatsapp. Mobile mentoring is Finn Church Aid’s project that enables Finnish teachers to provide their colleagues in Uganda with long-distance support.

In Uganda, as well as in many other African countries, Whatsapp is the easiest way to stay in touch. Stepping into the shoes of a colleague facing entirely different challenges via phone requires good situational judgment.

”One teacher may be in charge of a group with nearly 200 pupils. It takes some eye for the situation to decide what kind of advice to send their way.”

Stepping out of one’s comfort zone enables personal growth

What motivates Elina to travel time and time again?

”I don’t see myself as an adventurer. I have a kind of urge to learn and to challenge myself, to teach and to be of assistance if I possibly can. That feeling is hard to turn off, with so many opportunities still available.”

Elina plans to keep travelling and doing volunteer work as long as she feels like it. The most rewarding part is the feeling after the trip when you know it was worthwhile.

”I would like to encourage everyone to widen their perspective and to take the opportunity in their own life to do things they didn’t imagine they would do. Every step out of your comfort zone inevitably changes you and allows you to grow. Reaching for your dreams gives your life an incredible sense of meaning.”

Text: Elina Kostiainen
Translation: Leena Vuolteenaho

Teacher Without Borders –network provides opportunities for education professionals to do volunteer work in Asia and Africa.

The call for volunteer positions in spring 2020 is now open! Read more and apply by 10.11.2019.