Alumni in Action: Rachel Vad-Miller ’15 leads Denmark volunteer agency helping children

Vad-Miller chairs her local Save the Children Youth board, recruiting new volunteers and coordinating efforts to assist children and families near Copenhagen, Denmark.

Rachel Vad-Miller’s life is vastly different from the one she imagined 10 years ago leaving home on North Carolina’s Outer Banks to attend Elon University.

Living in the Copenhagen, Denmark, area since graduating in 2015 with a degree in human service studies, she’s married and is earning her Danish citizenship.

What hasn’t changed is the priority she places on service and volunteering. Vad-Miller was already an active community volunteer before attending Elon. An Odyssey Program scholar and the Department of Human Service Studies  Outstanding Senior of 2015, she worked closely with several community agencies advancing housing, youth and family programs in the Elon area. In Denmark, Vad-Miller works full time as a municipal social worker connecting vulnerable children and families to needed services. Her off-time is spent volunteering in the community filling gaps not covered by the country’s public services.

Vad-Miller chairs her local branch of Save the Children Youth, a Danish organization that connects adults under 30 in volunteer service for youth and educational services. She was recently interviewed for one of the organization’s social media videos aimed at recruiting volunteers.

“In a pre-interview about my background as a volunteer, he was interested that I’d done so much volunteering in my life,” Vad-Miller said. “From a Danish perspective, volunteering isn’t part of the education system. I told him about my experiences growing up and at Elon, and about how Elon teaches that we should be active members of society. I was an Elon Volunteers! coordinator. I showed him pictures of a human service studies service-learning class with the Burlington Housing Authority. … He thought it was wild.”

After moving to Denmark shortly after graduation, she became fluent in Danish, met and married her husband, Bjarke Vad-Miller, and in 2018 earned a master’s degree in global refugee studies from Aalborg University in Denmark.

First, how did you end up in Denmark after Elon?

I studied abroad in Denmark in 2013, the fall semester of my junior year. I wanted to be in a non-English-speaking country, to live with a host family, and be somewhere off the beaten path. I loved my host family and I loved Copenhagen. I planned to take a year between graduating Elon and beginning a master’s program. I found an internship in Denmark. It was 15 months, and I could stay with my host family. I moved here three or four days after graduation. I initially planned to return home, but then I just stayed. I never anticipated wanting to live outside the U.S. It’s been a crazy journey!

Why did you begin working with Save the Children Youth?

I always wanted to do service work in Denmark and volunteer. There’s a different volunteer environment here than in the U.S. There aren’t as many organizations and agencies because there’s a larger social welfare system. I saw a Facebook ad for Save the Children Youth that said they needed volunteers to work with asylum seekers. The Red Cross has a housing unit for refugees rejected from asylum. They had a program to take those children outside in nature, to make bonfires, play games and have creative activities. That’s how it started. After my first year, I became a project leader to recruit and train volunteers, and to communicate with the Red Cross about plans. In 2020, I went on the board for Save the Children Youth, which is for volunteers under 30, and in February I was elected chair of the board.

How would you compare Denmark’s social services to America’s system?

I haven’t worked in the U.S. but from my understanding, it’s more privatized in the U.S. If a child is struggling, there are private services, private counselors, families locate schools themselves. Here there are private services, but they are mostly used by the rich. Instead, more families rely on the public sector. Homelessness isn’t as much of an issue. There is still income inequality, but it’s not like in the U.S. (Social services) take a holistic view of a child’s life. What does the family need? What resources do they have? We make a plan to support the child and family through education, a family support counselor, and offer psychological help if it’s needed. Our systems are very interconnected. It’s a lot of preventative work. If we see a child is beginning to experience difficulties, we intervene and help the family before it gets bad. I have weekly contact with the families I work with. I know them really well and have good relationships with them.

How did Elon prepare you for this unexpected life?

The whole curriculum prepared me for this. I took a lot of different kinds of courses at Elon. In addition to being a human service studies major, I minored in psychology and poverty and social justice. In Denmark, I think education is more theory in social work programs, and you get some experience with paperwork and documents. At Elon, it’s hands on. I took so many service-learning classes, and those are great because they combine theory with real-world applications in projects, internships and in the human service studies practicum. I had a broad education. Plus there are so many professors with so many different backgrounds.

I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be in Denmark if it weren’t for Elon and the support I got there.

What keeps you interested in volunteering?

There are a lot of different aspects I enjoy. Save the Children is a great group of people that work together well and are trying to make the area as good as it can be. I enjoy seeing the local impact. Before, when I was working directly with children, every week we got to visit with them and they were always excited to see us. Now, what really keeps me going is my work as a social worker, seeing all the needs in the community and building connections. Through my job, I became aware of some children struggling in school. Save the Children Youth has homework cafés and “homework friends” programs. I sent information about them to the principal, who didn’t know there was this free service for her school, and she signed the school up to start collaborating with Save the Children. It’s those sorts of things, seeing that I’m helping people and finding solutions. Because of that, I think it’s really important that people talk about their volunteer work. You never know who you’re helping by talking about it and introducing it into the conversation.

About this series: The Elon Alumni in Action series explores the stories of university graduates who are doing important and uplifting work in their careers and their communities. To share the names of alumni you think should be considered for this series, please fill out the Alumni in Action nomination form.