UBS Horizons: it's a jungle out there

The Gateway speaks to three students who successfully navigated the ultimate in adventure challenges, courtesy of UBS

Mission: To provide running water to a village of 200 people

Name: Bristi Gogoi

University: Oxford

Subject: Engineering, Economics and Management

Location: Borneo


There are three parts to Borneo: the Indonesian part, the Malaysian part and Brunei. We went to the Malaysian part, which is incredibly beautiful. The first thing I noticed when I touched down was how green it all was. The second was the stifling heat! It's really humid and tropical; most days it would rain for at least an hour. The village we stayed in was quite open compared to the deep jungle surrounding it, which was full of leeches, snakes and other horrible creatures! It was so different to England and I admit that I found it difficult to adapt to things like having to live without running water and to digging a hole in the ground to use as a toilet.

Project pipeline

We spent a couple of days at base camp where we learnt basic survival skills, like how to put up a hammock in the middle of the rainforest. By the time we spent our first night in the jungle, we had to be completely self-sufficient. The project we were given was to build a gravity water feed system, which would supply water to a village of 200 people, or about 40 houses. We worked closely with the local people and every day the village chief came by to help us. He was one of the funniest people I've ever met, but he didn't speak brilliant English and we didn't speak Malay, but somehow we had to communicate, which was tough. Often, we worked with villagers to plan a route for the pipes and if you weren't careful, they would just try to take the pipe directly to their houses, so we had to be alert!

On tap

There were 15 people in my team and within that there was a huge variety of backgrounds and types of experience. We had a teacher, a HR manager, a designer, a history student...a real mixture! Working in such a large team was challenging, because everyone had a preferred way of doing things. We needed to let everyone play to their strengths, as we all had something to offer. Coming from an engineering background, I understood how the system should work. Others could survey, or teach English to the children.

With such a large project, we had to be very organised. We were worried that we wouldn't get it finished, and to leave something like that half-complete would have been tragic. But we pulled together and got it working. It was an absolutely amazing feeling! We held an opening ceremony, with an official "turning on of the tap" and lots of Bornean dancing from the villagers and their children!

Back on solid ground

I've learnt to appreciate what we have in the UK. I also think I've developed a lot as a person. To be a success in this kind of thing, you need to show drive and commitment. You need to be resilient, caring and want to help other people. I think everybody showed they had these qualities. Horizons was a fantastic experience and I would encourage anybody, from any background, to apply.

Mission: To build a community centre in the jungle

Name: Michael Sanni

University: Southampton

Subject: Economics and Politics

Location: Costa Rica

No cars go

I was very, very excited when I was selected for Horizons. I didn't know too much about Costa Rica, although I had heard they had huge amounts of wildlife, insects, tropical animals and snakes as well as one of the largest collections of flora and fauna in the world. We spent the first three weeks in an indigenous community in Pozo Azul and it was completely different from life as I know it. There were no cars or concrete buildings, only wooden structures, and very little contact with the outside world. There were few facilities, so we were washing ourselves in the river and using radios to communicate. Once you're in the jungle, stripped of all your home comforts, you learn a lot about yourself and your strengths and weaknesses.

Singin' in the rain

The whole trip was split into two large sections: the community phase and the trek. Anyone thinking of applying should be clear: it's no beach holiday! On the first phase, we built a community centre for a local village, which involved a lot of manual labour. We were hand mixing cement, lifting and carrying for 20 days in a completely alien environment. The second phase was a four-day trek through hills and mountains, along with a stay on San Lucas, a notorious Costa Rican prison island.

One of my lasting memories of the whole trip is from the final day of the trek. My group set out on a hike that was supposed to take six hours. Fourteen hours later, we were still on the go. We'd got lost in the rainforest, with 20kg packs on our backs, in boiling hot temperatures. It was a big challenge to stop everyone from getting down, so we sang to keep our spirits up. I'll never forget that day!

The lessons learnt

The expedition made me realise that there is more than one way of doing things right. Costa Ricans have a very easygoing attitude and are much more casual than the British. Whereas we're always rushing to get things done and be in the right place at the right time, they are more relaxed about making mistakes. The local people taught me that just because someone does something completely differently to me, it's not wrong. It's just different. Horizons taught me that I could adapt to a completely new environment with new people, and thrive while being myself. It also showed me the belief that UBS have in their people. They don't just view them as employees, but as individuals, which is refreshing!

If I were you...

My advice to anyone thinking of applying to the Horizons programme is to be confident. Once you're there, you're stripped of any external factors that make you feel comfortable, so you need to believe in yourself. If you do and you're prepared to work hard, you should flourish in the jungle!

Mission: To protect endangered turtles from poachers

Name: Kevin Tan

University: Oxford

Subject: Politics, Philosophy and Economics

Location: Costa Rica

Poached eggs

My time in Costa Rica was quite an experience. I spent five weeks there, and for the majority of them was working on an environmental project - on a beach saving turtles' eggs from being poached. Every night, the turtles would come up onto the beach to lay their eggs, about 100 each per night, which could each be sold for $1. We would patrol the beach for three hours every night, tracking the turtles. Once they had laid their eggs, we would dig them up and bring them back to the hatchery. We were racing against the poachers!

During the day, we helped the local conservation workers to build new facilities for the project. We spent weeks digging a gigantic trench and moved about three tonnes of earth with our hands and a few pickaxes. It wasn't easy!

You've made your bed...

It took me a while to acclimatise to certain aspects of life in Costa Rica. Firstly, there was the food! On the environmental project, you're given Raleigh rations (Raleigh International is the charity that organises the project), which means you're eating out of a can for a month. The sleeping arrangements also took some getting used to. Unlike the community projects, where volunteers stay with families or in community halls, we were given a couple of machetes and sent outside to chop bamboo to make our beds. It was tough, but by the end of the month everyone had grown to love sleeping in theirs!

Survival skills

One of my favourite things about Horizons is the way in which I got to meet and work with such a disparate bunch of people. In my team there was a Spanish business student, a Malaysian medical student, some British law students and then me: a Singaporean! It was such a wide and wonderful range of people, all of whom had different outlooks. But while everyone brought unique skills to the table, there were some qualities that everyone needed to have. I think interpersonal skills were the most important. When you're in such a tight group, you need the ability to talk to people and make friends with them, even when you're lost in the jungle and when tensions are running high. In doing so, I've become a much better leader and communicator. Even amid all the stressful situations I found myself in, I somehow kept my cool. We were chased by poachers on a couple of occasions, but I managed to handle the situation. I feel a real sense of pride about that. I definitely learnt a lot.

In the future

I'd had some exposure to the financial sector through a family member, but I always thought I would end up working for a charity. I applied for Horizons because UBS seemed to be the only bank doing charitable projects which were open to first years. I encountered a set of values that were similar to my own, as the whole experience was conducted in a dynamic, challenging environment, with friendly, helpful people. Now I can definitely see myself working for UBS in the future.