I came to Timor-Leste in March last year as a volunteer with the Australian government’s AVID program. I’ve been asked a couple of times since then what the application process was like, and I thought it could be useful to prospective applicants to spell it out here.
A quick note that the program’s name and design have changed since I applied; I’ll refer to AVID throughout this post because I was a participant when the program was called Australian Volunteers for International Development, but I’m reasonably confident the Australian Volunteers Program application process remains the same.
First, here are a few older blog posts I’ve written on volunteering that may be useful: Why I moved to Timor-Leste, what I wish I’d known before starting my AVID assignment, how I decided to leave my position early, and what I did daily as an AVID volunteer.
Applying for my AVID…
Was extremely straightforward.
I found an AVID Facebook post announcing open roles, followed the links, attached my resume, answered the four or five fairly boring, required questions, and expected to never hear from them again. Because I was deep in job applications and had a pre-polished resume, the application took me less than an hour (including Facebook browsing time).
AVID roles are advertised monthly, with most closing on the 22nd, and I heard back before the end of the month that they’d like to interview me.
What I wish I’d known: fewer people apply for each role than you’d think (seriously, watch the website for a few months in a row and you’ll see the same roles sitting unfilled), and the process is identical for each vacancy and thus gets easier the more you apply for. I applied for two roles, and if I did it again would apply for more.
The AVID interview
This was an extremely standard and fairly boring job interview.
I was living in Melbourne when I applied for my AVID, so I walked down to Fitzroy and had my interview face-to-face (I remember it was on a Thursday, because I worked the late shift at my cafe on Thursdays, which gave me the morning free for my interview). I know this is unusual and I was lucky — most applicants have to Skype interview.
My interview went for about an hour and was just me and one woman sitting alone in an office. The questions were unsurprising ones about the skills I’d bring to the role, how I might cope living in a challenging new environment, and why I wanted to move. My interviewer took copious notes for most of the interview in a pre-formatted document, which made me think she wasn’t the one making the final decision.
What I wish I’d known: that I basically had the role at this point! I found out much later than only one or two people interview for AVID positions, so if you get an interview, you’re in with a great chance. I’m glad I didn’t know at the time because it would have freaked me out, but I also would have submitted a better written application and started preparing myself for the reality of departure, which I didn’t — I was completely blindsided when I got my offer.
I also feel for a friend of mine, who after her interview with AVI (the Australian organisation that administers the volunteering program on behalf of the government) had her potential host organisation request to interview her, and went through identical questions in another hour-long Skype interview. I think this is unusual, but worth contemplating for your own application.
Receiving an AVID offer
I cycled from my interview to the cafe where I worked and by my lunch break had a cryptic email from AVI: As discussed, you’re our preferred candidate for this position.
There was no discussion. I’d even forgotten to ask when I’d likely hear back from them. The interview had been three hours ago. I had no idea they even liked me. And what the hell is a preferred candidate?
I now understand that preferred candidate and similar phrases limit AVI’s legal responsibility for the choices I made after receiving that email: if I’d quit a job or sold a house and then not passed the medical check and had my position fall through, I couldn’t sue them for my loss because they’d not yet made a formal offer.
But. Practically, it’s more work for them to find a replacement, you’re unlikely to fail the tests and visa requirements, and absolute worst case scenario they’ll just delay your departure for a couple of months until everything comes together. You’re not not going. It’s you. You’re the candidate.
I immediately told my cafe boss about the offer but –because I didn’t understand what it meant–I was like, “I might find out soon if I’m going to Timor-Leste?”
What I wish I’d known: AVI chooses quickly. “Preferred candidate” means you’re going. Start making plans and saying goodbyes.
AVID pre-departure training
You’ve signed your offer and tried to understand the confusingly truncated language. Next, you have to complete a long list of AVID pre-departure requirements before they pack you off.
This includes several modules of online learning (for the most part extremely tedious; I did a few at the Evelyn pub with a half-bottle of rose); a medical declaration (which I initially tripped up on; I revealed my anxiety in the online tick-box form and had to get a signed doctor’s note outlining how I’d manage it overseas — hahahaha, and the GP I booked in with last-minute didn’t know what anxiety was and thought I had post-traumatic stress disorder, then told me to eat more grains and pulses); a long mental health management plan; a couple of other procedural forms that I’ve now pushed from my memory; a fact-sheet overview of your new host country’s context and a two-day-long pre-departure training in person in Melbourne, which gathers many different departees heading for many different countries.
I was wracked with nerves before my pre-departure training and was anxious to learn as much as I possibly could over those few days. Looking back, it was details I wanted — I think I would have found helpful seeing photos and videos of life in Dili, a skype call with AVI’s Timor-Leste team, meeting a returned volunteer who had been in Timor-Leste, and practical information about accessing money and daily life abroad.
But AVI–sensibly–uses the sessions to train you as best they can to be Good Volunteers: we talked about child protection, sexual harrassment, cultural respect, the politics, geography and economies of the countries we were heading to, and worked through tens of hypothetical questions about what we’d do if a colleague was stealing from work or if our male boss wanted to drive us home alone. We worked quite a lot with the other departing volunteers, which I suspect for many was helpful — but because I did a training a few months before I left, I wasn’t bonding with the future friends I’ve have in Dili; I was instead nervously hanging on the fringes of the group of charismatic, confident, good-looking people heading off for a year in the glamorous-sounding Solomons.
What I wish I’d known: This isn’t for me. Not really. Not for me personally, anyway. The online learning and forms and plans and sessions are largely for AVI to discharge its responsibility and manage as best it can the hundreds of disparate Australians it send overseas every month. So this was never going to be a process personally tailored to me, Sophie. Thus, my advice here is to make it for you — do the modules at the pub if you want to; ask AVI for a connection with a returned volunteer if you need something less abstract to feel confident about leaving.
I left Perth on a Wednesday and spent a nervous night in the Darwin airport hotel room that AVI had booked for me. The then-Timor-Leste country director, Cathy, had told me to keep an eye out for two other volunteers who were on my same flight, but I think we all wanted the evening alone with our thoughts and didn’t say hello.
I walked to the airport to get some US dollars, I jogged on a hotel treadmill in an attempt to kill my nerves, I re-packed my carry-on and ate Chinese food for dinner. Then I went to sleep, and on Thursday morning, woke up for the flight to Dili.
(Here’s a blog post about the first 24 hours in Dili.)
Cathy and her team met us at the x-ray machine at the airport, whisked us off for breakfast and a dense security briefing, and helped us get settled at the hotel where we’d stay for our first couple of weeks. The next few days are now a blur (here’s how that first weekend went), and at 8:30am the following Monday we officially started ICOP, or the in-country orientation program.
For a month, we went to four hours of Tetun class each weekday morning, and then in the afternoons would either attend a training session (on topics like gender, culture, laws, etc), run errands (like getting visas and driver’s licenses and the correct portrait photos), meet our host organisations, or have free time. I tried to use some of that time to revise Tetun, but if I had those first few months again I would tell myself (what Laura told me): slow down, settle in, you have time. My brain was full for a month.
Settling in to life in Timor-Leste
AVI’s Timor-Leste team (which was then Cathy, Alita and Maria) helped us with some things and left us alone for others. Maria was ludicrously useful with helping us set up our phones, get our visas, secure driver’s licenses, and all three women either dropped us at Tetun class or picked us up on the first couple of days before we mastered the microlets, and were always available to answer questions they’d no doubt heard a thousand times before (and Alita, in particular, led one of my favourite ICOP sessions–she drove us around Dili and we had to direct her, to orientate ourselves).
With housing, though, we were just given the phone numbers of a couple of current AVI volunteers whose houses had vacancies–which, fortunately worked out well, but I feel for other volunteers who don’t want to live in a sharehouse and who may have to face renting in Dili alone (for comparison, the VSA program–New Zealand’s AVID equivalent–rents houses for its volunteers and installs them as soon as they arrive).
After about six weeks, I felt well and truly settled in — in part due to the excellent support from AVI, and in part because, as helpful as I found expat blogs and posts like this one before I left, there’s really something to be said for just being there.
A note on timing
A final note on how long this all took: I applied for my role in October 2016, received the conditional offer that same week, and then did all my training in early 2017 before flying out on 2 March. My initial 18-month-long AVID assignment would have finished on 1 September 2018. Keep this timeline in mind when you’re applying.
And finally, please do! I found my AVID assignment challenging at times (and ultimately left the program early), but I’ve had a wonderful experience and feel indebted and grateful to AVI for making this happen for me — I think it’s as close to an ethically sound volunteering model as you can get on that scale, and I wouldn’t have been able to make this move and have this life I love so much without that program.