Sandra Fee From Ireland

My One Year “Career Break Challenge” With VSO 2007

Although the circumstances behind most career breaks relate to family responsibilities, I had a very different motivation for stepping away from my career for one year in 2007. Organisations such as Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) offer professionals the opportunity to contribute to life-changing projects in developing countries and are always keen to recruit scientists, teachers and engineers. My name is Sandra Fee and I had been working as a Physics teacher for over 20 years in Ireland, when I applied for a Career Break, to work on a VSO project in Guyana, South America.

I’ve always been fanatical about instilling a love of Physics in as many students as I possibly can. I introduced Physics to Ardee Community School in Ireland over 20 years ago. Since then the uptake of the subject has gone from strength to strength. This year 36 students sat the exams for “Leaving Certificate Physics” in my School … far exceeding the national average for this subject!

The seed for change in my career was sown in 1999 when I was taking n Masters Degree in Medical and Radiation Physics at Birmingham University. I heard about the wonderful work done in Education by VSO in Third World Countries and dreamed that one day I would accept the challenge of becoming a volunteer and give of my time, knowledge and experience to help those less well off, in developing countries. Six years later, I was listening to the Radio on my way home from School and I heard the following comment during the Radio discussion… “Little thoughts and wishes which niggle and niggle and refuse to go away should never be ignored… for in them lie the seeds of destiny”. I realised that the one thing that niggled at the back of my mind was my wish to do Voluntary Work overseas. I made the decision then, to apply for a Career Break and to apply to VSO — it was the best decision I have ever made! I wanted to spread my love of Physics to Science students in a developing Country.

I applied for a Career Break in 2007 and after a fairly intensive application process was offered a work placement in Guyana, South America with VSO. I was excited, thrilled and so, so happy! At no stage was I in any doubt … and after attending 3 VSO Training Workshops in Birmingham, I felt armed and ready for a whole new experience and a new chapter in my life!

In Guyana I was appointed as a Grade 2 lecturer in Physics at the largest teacher-training college in the Country (CPCE). I was given the task of training young Science/Physics teachers, preparing examinations and updating the physics curriculum. I also did a lot of fundraising back home, with the support of friends, family, work colleagues and my school students. I arranged for the shipment of Physics equipment from Ireland to Guyana and organised workshops for staff on how to use all the new equipment. It was a great day for the college when that large Box of Physics equipment arrived and great to see the impact it would have on teaching physics.

Moving abroad for a year wasn’t trivial, even with the support of VSO. I had to rent out my home, sell my car, raise funds for the trip, attend training weeks in England and arrange insurance and pension payments for the year away. Once I arrived, my main challenge was the climate! Guyana is on the Equator and working in the dreadful humidity was unbearable at times. I lost 14 lbs during my first 6 weeks spent in Guyana, due to the heat and humidity and constant perspiration, and at first found the food difficult to eat. After a month or so I settled in, my appetite returned, and I was never homesick at any stage. I knew I was in the right place at the right time; spreading my love of Physics to trainee Science teachers in Guyana for one year! I also kept a diary as a record of my days spent in Guyana…

The year I spent away has had a positive impact on my career in many ways. Since returning, I’ve taken up new opportunities and challenges. I am job-sharing and work half of my week as a Physics teacher in my old school. I spend the other half working at the National University of Ireland Maynooth as a Lecturer in Physics Methods, and Supervisor to Trainee Science and Physics teachers.
I’ve represented Ireland as a female Physicist at the International Conference on Women in Physics held in South Africa (ICWIP 2011), the highlight of my career to date. I’ve also been appointed as a member of the IOPI Committee.

As with anyone who takes a break from their career, your principle assets are your skills and experience. Focus on these and on what you have to offer. Be positive about the contribution you will make. If you feel like a change of career, my advice is very clear and very enthusiastic — you should go for it. My motto for my challenging year spent in Guyana sums up my attitude now — Be brave and bold and mighty forces will come to your aid!

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