U.K. scientist Alan Wood obtained a Ph.D. in computer science from North Staffordshire Polytechnic (now Staffordshire University) in 1986 with research aimed at making computers better at understanding human speech. After graduating, he applied for a volunteer assignment with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), an international development nonprofit organization that functions like a "dating agency," Woods says, matching volunteers' skills to developing countries' requests for help.
But VSO rejected his application, suggesting that he "come back in 20 years when you've got some experience," Wood says. So he took a gap year, "just traveling around the world, and that was fun," he says. When he returned, he took an industry job developing software for aircraft simulators. When the company went bust, he joined the space science department of Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Chilton, U.K. as a computer programmer and system manager, developing tools to analyze information coming down from satellites. "That was a reasonably well-paid job; it was cutting-edge technology working with some very, very clever people; and most of the time it was a fun job," Wood says. "That was a good career."
In the event, it only took 10 years, not 20, before VSO decided he was ready for a volunteer gig. "I was financially secure and so felt able to just say, 'Well, I'm happy to contribute a couple of years doing voluntary work,' " Wood says. He applied to VSO again, and this time his application was successful. He was given a 2-year senior lecturer position in the north of Nigeria. After a brief period of training focused on teaching in a developing country, and an adaptation phase upon arrival, Wood joined the Federal Polytechnic in Damaturu, teaching computer science to undergraduates and training a local professor to do the same.
Wood says his impact there was "massive." Nigeria is "quite a split country," with the north underdeveloped. In that area, "you're not only teaching the students to a good level, you're also trying to raise the whole standard of the whole establishment," he says. He gave guest lectures at other polytechnics and advised nearby schools. He became an ad hoc computer consultant. "I'd get called out to local government offices to sort out their computer problems," he says.
"The Nigerians were just wonderful," Wood adds. "They are so grateful and enthusiastic that you've given up your time to go and try to help them."
VSO provided health insurance and a roundtrip ticket to Nigeria. Wood received the same "subsistence" salary and accommodation that local lecturers received, he says. "As you're single, it's not quite the same because you're not stretching it to a wife and three or four kids, so you can afford a little bit more" than the local lecturers. "You shouldn't be out of pocket doing VSO, but equally you can't expect to make any money."
The living conditions in northern Nigeria were harsh. In Damaturu, "you look out of the polytechnic on to the Sahara desert," he says. Water and electricity are occasional luxuries, and food markets are poorly supplied. "It's almost entirely Muslim and fairly strict Muslim, so the culture was quite hard as well," Wood says; there was no place to go to have a drink, for example. People who had never seen a white man would go up to him in the street just to touch him. "When I was there, they did have some quite serious troubles with armed gangs, not in the town itself, but traveling was very dangerous." In the end, he says, he thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But he was relieved when it was over.
When Wood left RAL for Nigeria, the lab was prepared to hold his job open, but he declined the offer. Because technology changes so fast, after 2 years away, "you would need to work very hard to get back where you were," he says. So, having enjoyed teaching and upon returning to the United Kingdom, he decided to pursue a postgraduate certificate in education specializing in information and communication technologies for secondary students.
With his new qualification in hand, Wood moved to Guyana, teaching IT and math in a new volunteering position with VSO. Starting in 2001, he spent a year at Queen's College in the "very westernized" capital Georgetown. Then he joined a school in a small town, Bartica, in the rainforest; he stayed there 2 years. With support from the school and the local community and government, Wood arranged a shipment of used computers, donated by the Toronto Stock Exchange, and helped build a computer laboratory.
Upon returning once more to the United Kingdom, in 2004, Wood worked with local charities, teaching IT skills to the unemployed, pensioners, and people with mental and physical disabilities. Nearing retirement, he now combines IT consulting with two part-time teaching jobs, one teaching prison inmates with Manchester College and the other teaching local adults on behalf of Blackpool's Council.
Volunteering "totally changed my career," Wood says. "Doing voluntary work like that makes you think about the value of things," he adds. "I am not wasting anything, and I think once you've got that attitude, that reflects on your whole life, because you can now do jobs or change career to a job that doesn't pay as well but is more rewarding."
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.