10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Volunteering Abroad
Whether teaching English at a bilingual school in Argentina, volunteering at an AIDS clinic in Tanzania, or participating in a sustainable tourism seminar in Morocco, I believe in traveling with a purpose. Volunteering has always been an integral part of my travels. In fact, many times it has been the sole reason for my going abroad.
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In no way do I regret such trips, but there are things I wish I’d known before volunteering abroad. Here’s what I’ve learned from being in the field:
#1: I could have found a similar placement myself, for free.
In 2009, I went to teach English in Buenos Aires through Road2Argentina – an organization that arranges teaching placements as well as study abroad, Spanish courses and other programs in Argentina. I quickly realized that I could have eliminated the organization’s intermediary role and saved a lot of money. However, being new in town, I did appreciate the support network that the organization provided. It made me feel safe in a country I hadn’t yet been to.
Clearly, going through an organization has its costs and benefits, and all of them should be weighed against one another before you go. I welcome you to read more about the financial breakdown on my latest column for Transitions Abroad: “Why Pay to Volunteer?“. You might also be interested in reading about my particular experience with Road2Argentina.
#2: Not every volunteer program is right for everyone.
Some volunteers desire a 24-hour support network. Others, like me, prefer being more independent. Thinking carefully about such factors will ensure a more successful experience. Of course, don’t ever compromise your safety.
If you are considering volunteering abroad, check out the following resources:
Transitions Abroad: A comprehensive educational travel resource that features first-hand participant reports from volunteers who have returned from overseas.
Volunteer Abroad: A directory of over 17,000 opportunities abroad. You can search according to volunteer work categories, from archeology to refugee relief to microcredit initiatives. Note that unlike Transitions Abroad, this database does not include first-hand reports.
#3: Upon completion, volunteering won’t guarantee a job, or a visa.
Countless are the volunteers who come abroad thinking they will get hired. Don’t lose track of the expiration date of your tourist visa.
But don’t see it as a one-way street either. If you really want to stay longer, inquire with your program to explore your options for getting a more permanent work permit. This may involve a trip to the embassy or two and filing some additional forms.
Overall, the key is to connect with local businesses and/or organizations while you are already on-site. Chances are much higher that they will hire you if you present yourself in-person.
#4: Nobody told me things would be that bad.
Sure, people always mention “culture shock.” But it is often once you see first-hand emaciated children sleeping on cars at night, that you realize what true poverty and famine really mean.
During my first volunteer work in Tanzania at age fifteen, I arrived with a grossly naive, idealized worldview. But the ravages of AIDS aren’t going to end because I helped out for three weeks.
Accepting this fact can take a while. Above all, one shouldn’t see it as a reason not to volunteer abroad. On the contrary, try to make a difference on a small scale. You may not be able to save every AIDS orphan worldwide, but helping a few is certainly possible. Accepting that big change starts small is the key.
Precisely because you can’t change the world in a day, helping out can be very depressing. Again, what’s important is not to get caught up in the bigger picture; instead, focus on the small differences you can make.
Coping with such extreme situations can be very difficult, and it is during times like these that a support network is greatly appreciated. Talking to your supervisors and fellow volunteers can help. It may take a while to assimilate to your surroundings, and you may not realize the full shock until you have returned home. Again, it is useful to talk about your feelings with a friend, family member or counselor.
#7: I am “only” a volunteer.
Particularly if you help out for a short period of time, people are reluctant to give you responsibilities. Even more so, they may not treat you with respect. You are just another “white tourist” visiting a poor country.
Trying your best to fit in with the local community can help. If you haven’t already done so, learn a few words of the local language. Take a course prior to arriving, either in-person or online. Virtual learning portals such as Livemocha have made it easier than ever to learn languages online.
#8: I’m not cut out for seeing extreme poverty and death.
If there’s one thing I learned from volunteering at an AIDS clinic, it’s that I could never be a doctor. Volunteering showed me that I’m more fragile than I thought I was.
#9: Volunteering can make you see sides of yourself you never knew.
Confrontations with extreme situations can make you feel vulnerable, cry, and break down. But teaching at a primary school was also the first time that I thought seriously about what it would be like to have children myself.
Getting to know oneself through exploring a foreign culture is part of the process. Be prepared to look within. I recently wrote about keeping a journal versus a blog. For these kinds of reflections, I recommend a journal to record your most intimate thoughts; it can be very beneficial in your journey of personal discovery.
#10: Despite everything, I would miss it afterwards.
Volunteering abroad is an experience that leaves an indelible imprint. Back at home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the AIDS orphans and all that I’d seen. Volunteering has become a life-long passion for me ever since.