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  • INSMS International Network for Students of Migration Studies

Volunteer Psychologist at the Refugee Service Centre

Mariana from Brazil shared with us how a volunteering role as a psychologist looks like. She wants to see more debate around the volunteering work that would emphasise its problems, and advises you to go out to the field but not with a touristic mindset!

Mariana is 26, comes from Brazil, and holds a degree in psychology from Universidade Federal Fluminense/Latin America and Caribbean Studies - CLACSO (Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales). Her most recent position was as volunteer psychologist at the Refugee Service Centre, which is an initiative of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. The centre welcomes the refugees in Rio de Janeiro, and offers a lot of activities, such as Portuguese courses, psychological support, employment fairs, and advocacy. As a psychologist, Mariana would talk with refugees in conversation circles in groups from three to ten people, and when necessary, briefly state aspects of it to the social worker.

She liked her work but as it is kind of a new field, especially in Rio de Janeiro, she believes that many things could be optimised, so she took steps towards improvements herself:

“One of them is the lack of a formal network between actors that work in the migration scene. That’s why I decided to create, with colleagues, in 2019, still as a student, a network of Brazilian forced migration researchers. If we wait for the public power to coordinate us, I’m afraid we’ll be left waiting.”

This was the job she imagined she would do, as she comes from the field of psychology and not specifically migration studies. She was very used to the format of conversation circles and group therapy, which is a very common form of working with refugees.

She says it was very difficult to find a job, as in Rio de Janeiro there is no active humanitarian response, Despite being the second largest city in the country, Rio still falls behind São Paulo in many aspects, and public migration policy is one of them. Nevertheless, she decided to stay in Brazil to build a humanitarian culture in the country and in Latin America in general, so they could respond to their region's social issues their own way.

Go out in the field

Mariana thinks it is very important to go out into the field, and says you should not be afraid to pursue an internship that will put you out there. These experiences are extremely valued in the job market. She also highlights the value of the academic setting:

“Dive headfirst into research opportunities, because you might never get the chance again to fully dedicate yourself to creating scientific thinking. And the most important advice I could give is to work to create links that will remain after you leave university. Work in order to bring a perdurable impact in your field.”

She already started volunteering with an NGO during her studies, and she continued to do so after she graduated. Both her and her friends from the field experienced the difficulties of entering the humanitarian job market, as it is not only very competitive but also elitist:

“You’ll have greater chances of getting a job if you speak other languages, if you have experience abroad, if you’ve volunteered during your studies etc. How many people can do that alongside their studies? Also, we all know volunteering is important, but there’s clearly exploitation of this workforce (a very skilled one, most of the time), in this area.”

Another obstacle that students are facing is the fact that postgraduate courses in humanitarian aid are non-existent in Latin America, and you probably have to go abroad to pursue the degree. This means that you face a very challenging selection process, as you compete with some of the most skilled people in the field, and even if you succeed, you need to obtain a scholarship due to the difference in currency exchange, which makes the selection process even harder.

As she comes from a background that allowed her to dig into these requirements since the beginning of her studies, she says she was well prepared. Nevertheless, she hopes that the volunteering culture will soon be more discussed and problematised. One of the main reasons is the fact that people in this field, whether working for free or not, have to deal with a lot of emotionally draining situations which should not be taken lightly:

“We cannot accept the workforce to be that exploited just because they ‘should be doing it out of goodwill’. It’s not because it’s ‘an important role in/for society’ that it could be done for free."

Tips for success

“Go to the field, but not with a touristic mindset. It’s a job like any other (not more important or more valuable than any other, although it’s sold that way). Don’t promote yourself or brag about yourself, try to be careful not to fall into a white-savior posture. Don’t photograph people without their consent. Work ethically. Even in the field, don’t forget to study and research a lot. This is social science. Dig into Anthropology, Psychology, Politics (especially Geopolitics), Law, and any other field that you think could correlate. Read the manuals, respect the authorities, but always reinvent yourself if it’s people’s well-being that’s at stake. Actually, it’s always people’s well-being that’s at stake. Respect their visions on the world, even if they’re entirely different and weird to you. Try not to colonize people. As Foucault once wrote: “Don’t fall in love with power”. And most importantly, even though you love your job (and I hope you do), work with everything you’ve got to build a world that doesn’t need humanitarian assistance.”

*INSMS is always looking for interesting career paths of former migration students. If you would like to share your professional history with the network, please contact us by email:, Subject: P2P campaign

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