Sweat dripping off of his brow and bugs buzzing incessantly around his head, Cedric Hodgeman, an SHS class of 2000 graduate, raised his machete and coldly took aim at his next victim, a tender shoot of guadua bamboo. Deep in the Peruvian Amazon forest, Cedric was in the middle of an 8 month backpacking and volunteering trip that took him to South America, Africa and Europe. Having traded Facebook and SMS for a machete and rubber boots, he travelled to this beautiful remote area to volunteer on a conservation project run by a local environmentalist. Together with a small and eager crew of international volunteers from all walks of life, Cedric cleared trails, planted trees and, to accelerate the forest’s recovery from years of illegal logging, chopped non-native bamboo.
Cedric Hodgeman (left) and
Raul Roman, the co-founders of UBELONG
Cedric has been involved in community service throughout his life. From volunteering at White Plains Hospital when he was in high school to his work with small businesses in South Africa as a student at Cornell University, giving back has always come naturally to him. After four years working in finance and real estate, in 2009, during his 8 month trip, he turned his passion for community service into a career. He co-founded an organization based in Washington, DC called UBELONG with Raul Roman, a former Cornell classmate who is now an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. UBELONG launched in June and aims to offer the most affordable, flexible and high-quality international volunteering opportunities.
From his extensive travels and international development work, Cedric knows firsthand the benefits of volunteering abroad. For the hosting community, he notes that “international volunteers tackle problems in a very effective on-the-ground manner.” As he explains, “when volunteers and locals work side by side there is less bureaucracy and problems are not hidden behind a newspaper headline, they are right in front of you.”
For the volunteer, Cedric tells that in volunteering abroad “you probably get more out of the experience than what you put into it.” He describes the practical skills gained from experiencing different cultures, learning new languages and working on teams with locals and fellow volunteers. He then describes the sense of fulfillment that comes from volunteering internationally: “Volunteering abroad stretches your mind. As you see yourself adapting to new cultures, connecting with new people and making a positive impact, you cannot help but to feel more confident, empowered and proud.”
However, international volunteering is not accessible to most people. Cedric notes that the Peace Corps is the benchmark for international volunteering organizations, but it requires a 27 month commitment. There are a few private organizations offering placements abroad, but most are not based in the US or have limited international development credentials. Additionally, nearly all are prohibitively expensive because, as Cedric notes, “there are so few organizations offering short-term volunteering opportunities that the few that do, even those claiming to be nonprofits, get away with charging enormous amounts.”
UBELONG steps in to offer affordable, flexible and high-quality one week to six month volunteering opportunities in many different areas. From contributing to a microfinance project in Vietnam to helping protect the environment in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, UBELONG is open to people of all backgrounds. As for affordability, a one week experience starts as low as $350, which, among other services, includes a Preparation Briefing, airport pickup, in-country orientation, housing, meals, project supervision and 24/7 support.
Cedric calls the public’s response to UBELONG so far “incredible.” In just the first month since UBELONG launched, hundreds of individuals from all backgrounds have inquired about volunteering on UBELONG projects. Some volunteers have already returned home, including Julie Gieringer, a 26 year old woman from Arizona who spent two weeks teaching English in Lima, Peru and whose story is featured on the UBELONG website. Looking forward, Cedric aims to place hundreds of volunteers per year on UBELONG projects. He is also looking forward to opening projects in new countries, including Haiti, where he will be travelling soon. As Cedric notes, “there is so much good that comes from international volunteering and we are really excited about UBELONG’s role in empowering people to make a positive difference both abroad and in their own lives.”