GoAbroad Interview

Alex Knott - Director of Outreach & Curation

Growing up between England, South Africa, and Singapore, Alex’s default mode became exploration. She has taught English in Cambodia and China, conducted research in Mexico and Greece, studied in Turkey, supported NGOs in Kenya and Argentina, and worked with IOM in Costa Rica. Alex has a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from UBC, and an MA in Anthropology from SOAS, University of London. Besides travel, Alex enjoys learning (anything!), engaging in thoughtful conversations, and being outside!

What inspired you to work with Omprakash?

Before working with Omprakash, I had found my studies inspiring, yet I was eager to put what I had learned into practice. In previous work positions, I often felt excited to be working towards something, yet didn’t feel I had the space to reflect on or question the projects I was part of.

What inspired me Omprakash as an organization is the openness to combine reflection, dialogue, and action. I find this combination, and constant aspiration to ask new questions and dig deeper both inspiring and fulfilling.

Woman smiling in front of overview of cityscape
All smiles

Describe some of your typical responsibilities and projects as the Director of Outreach & Curation.

Some of my responsibilities and projects include communicating with and supporting our 180+ Partners around the world; marketing and social media; supporting our grant recipients; curating content on our Blog and Global Dialogue discussion forum and hosting webinars; writing content; and continuing to develop our EdGE Program. The variety in my work, and the ability to interact with the wide range of members that make up the Omprakash network on a daily basis keeps it very interesting!

How do you use your own international experiences- everything from growing up in England, South Africa, and Singapore, to teaching English in Cambodia and China, and other experiences in Mexico, Greece, Turkey, Kenya, Argentina, Canada, and Costa Rica (WOW!)- in your work today?

It all comes in, and sometimes in unexpected ways! I am very fortunate to have had many diverse experiences, and I try to bring what I’ve learned into my interactions with EdGE students & Partners, my writing, and my involvement in the EdGE classroom.

Looking back on my experiences also reminds me of the journey that brought me to where I am now, and the many ways I’ve changed over the course of it … which reminds me to keep an open mind, and continue to engage in conversation with others!

Why do you think it is important for people to travel and experience new cultures?

The way we grow up often seems so natural to us that it can be hard to imagine other ways of being, thinking, and believing. 

Interacting with others with vastly different experiences in the world can help us to de-center our own perspectives, and imagine alternatives.

Travel isn’t always necessary for this – many of us live with difference all around us in our own hometowns, states, or countries – yet, travel often does provide the first connection to other people and perspectives, and can help us to realize the differences and social issues present in our own communities when we return.

Fear of other people tends to come from not knowing– once we start to connect across differences, fear and imagined barriers start to disappear. At the same time, social injustices start to become more evident and more important for all of us to contest. I think the current political climate in many parts of the world shows us the importance of such connections!

What issues do you see in the world of international education that don’t line up with your values and expectations for mutually beneficial and educational relationships between providers/programs and the communities in which they are located within?

While mutually beneficial relationships may be an aspiration for many, few organizations make this a central part of their mission, or think outside the box (beyond financial transactions) in terms of what such relationships might actually look like. We don’t claim to have the answer, but we do endeavor to work with our host Partners to figure out how we can do better, and continuously adapt according to their feedback.

One issue, I think, is the incentive structures created when people pay to volunteer, as this often lead to organizations focusing more on the experiences and comfort of their students, and neglecting the interests of the host community they are supposedly ‘helping’. Often, these programs are set up to deliver a neatly packaged volunteer trip that is designed to make the volunteer feel good their contributions, and rarely opens a space for real connections and dialogue, deeper engagement, and the possibility of an evolving process of mutual learning.

Furthermore, few volunteer organizations offer a robust and challenging educational program to help volunteers get beyond problematic or simplistic assumptions service, and make the most of the mutual learning that can come from international engagement. 

To move towards the ideal of mutually beneficial and educational relationships, we must question our own ingrained assumptions, as volunteers and as program admins, in terms of how our programs operate, and what this means for all involved.

What organization would you love to collaborate with in the future as part of your outreach and curation?

So far, Omprakash has been fortunate to collaborate with a range of non-profits, higher education institutions, volunteer organizations, schools, and businesses. Each of these collaborations has allowed us to explore new possibilities, has pushed us to ask new questions, and has allowed us to evolve in our work.

I would therefore love to collaborate with any organization interested in deepening the learning potential of their programs, asking tough questions, and engaging with these complex issues with us!

What does ethical global engagement mean to you?

I think of ethical global engagement as something to strive towards – an emergent process rather than something tangible or fixed.

That being said, at its roots, I think it emerges from humility and realizing you don’t have all the answers, questioning realities and perspectives (starting with your own!), and striving towards equitable relationships, while acknowledging inequalities and power imbalances. It begins with the willingness to reflect upon your own intentions, engage in open dialogue with others, and continually adjusting the way you move through the world as a result.

Do you have any travel or non-travel lessons that you live by/ use as a guiding factor in your life?

We all live in some sort of ‘bubble’ – inevitably, we tend to only have the chance to interact with certain segments of the population. This is true on a global scale, but also on a local scale. While our bubbles are comfortable and familiar, I have found that profound learning often takes place when you’re able to get beyond the bubble and have meaningful interactions with people you don’t necessarily (at least on the surface!) have a lot in common with.

When I began traveling, I made an effort to go beyond this bubble and interact with people I usually wouldn’t. In the context of volunteering, this often means trying to meet and get to know people living in my host community, rather than just interacting with other volunteers or travelers. In time, I also realized the relevance of this practice in one’s own community, as there may be people living such different lives on the other side of town, or even in the apartment next to you.

Why should an individual choose Omprakash over other providers?

We enable direct connections with our host Partners – there are no fees or ‘placements’. Rather, we allow you to figure out what position is best for you in conversation with the organization(s) you might wish to support.

We also challenge you (in the best way possible!) through our EdGE Program, opening new spaces for personal growth, reflection, and deep learning.

We are also one of the most affordable options: you will be responsible for your travel and living expenses (we do offer grants and a crowdfunding platform to help you with these!), but we don’t charge a volunteer fee to work with our Partners.

What hopes do you have for the future of Omprakash?

Omprakash was built on the ideal of building relationships, and these relationships have gotten us to where we are now. My hope for the future of Omprakash is that we can continue to forge meaningful connections, and deepen our relationships with those already in our network.