Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Thinking of Volunteering Abroad?

I say go for it! It's the only way to travel for me - far better than just going as a tourist. If you're thinking of doing it here's my advice:

1. Go for at least 1 month, but no more than 3.
Two weeks was too short. It's amazing how quickly you can adapt and feel at home in a place, but 2 weeks doesn't give you enough time to really get into the swing of things, experience everything or feel like you've made a difference.

But at the same time, perhaps don't stay for longer than 3 months (in the same place that is.) If you want to volunteer for a longer time, like 6months or a year, perhaps go to several different places. Changing projects or countries will help stop the time there becoming just like going to work. Remember how I said you adapt surprisingly quickly to a new place? It's also true that things become common place pretty quickly and you forget to appreciate it.

The exception to this would be if you have your heart set on a particular place or project for a particular reason, or have been on one before that really meant something to you and want to return with some pupse in mind to make a significant difference.

2. Appreciate Diversity
You will meet a whole range of different people - whether because of culture, beliefs, age, or just personality. If you can't get on with people different to yourself, you'll find it hard. But maybe that's just all the more reason to go and learn to adapt! If you find it hard to meet new people, but want to challenge yourself, go for it. It's worth the discomfort. And if you love meeting new people, you'll be in your element.

3. Go with an open mind.
You can learn something from everyone you meet. And volunteering is a great time to do it, because everyone is there for new experiences and so more open and inquisitive that people generally are at home. Whether it is learning about a different culture or country, either the one your in, or the countries of other volunteers you meet; or learning to be a more open minded person - refering to number 2, the different people you meet, the ones you get along with and the ones that rub you the wrong way (sometimes especially those) can have a really lasting impact on how you see the world and even yourself.

4. Don't be afraid to Go It Alone
I went in a group for this trip, which was fun. But I have also travelled solo before, and I loved it. Normally I'm not the most outgoing person, and feel nervous meeting new people, but travelling alone was great for me. You are forced to go out of your comfort zone, and forced to meet new people because you'll get lonely after a few days not talking to anyone! Plus you can be more approachable than in a group, and you can also be more flexible in your travel plans.

5. Do some touristy things
Just because you're going on a volunteer trip, don't think you're meant to be completely noble and selflesss and not allow some touristy time. Tourism is a big industry after all, and provides a lot of jobs. And even if a place is touristy, it's often because there is something worthwhile seeing there. It became popular for a reason, so don't be put off just because you have to get there on a tourist bus. Plus, living and working in the country will provide you with a lot of opportunities that are off the beaten track and more genuine too.

6. Bring a laptop.
If you're going for a long time, or a short time, it's really helpful to be able to keep in touch with home. Skype will provide you with some of the most frustrating delayed conversations of your life, but it's still good to hear people's voices. And it's good for people at home to be able to see what you're doing and share the experience even though they're not there themselves. Going on a volunteer trip isn't just helpful for the communities you go to, or enlightening for you, but it can be impactful on the people around you at home when you tell them about it. (And if you've fundraised for your trip, people like to see what you're doing with their money ;) And keeping up with what's happening at home can help you not feel so disconnected once you get back.

The obvious exception to this advice is if you're going to a place without electricity or internet. One day I would like to go somewhere where I can't bring my phone and computer, just to force myself out of the reliance on technology for the experience. But international snail mail is slow, and being totally disconnected for a long time can be isolating when you're not used to it. So be easy on yourself.

So go for it! It probably will be challenging sometimes, but we'd never grow if we never did anything out of our comfort zone. And you might suprise yourself with what you're capable of when you take that step!


  1. These are great tips, one more thing you could add is volunteering abroad changes the lives of the volunteers as well as the people who are working with

  2. Yes, that is definitely true! I meant to imply that, but probably should have stated it more strongly!

  3. Yes, that is definitely true! I meant to imply that, but probably should have stated it more strongly!