Instead of spending the summer at a sleep-away camp or at home lounging by a pool, I spent my summers doing community service abroad. Service trips can come with a hefty price tag, but being able to immerse oneself in another culture is priceless. Service trips can have a lasting impact on both the participant and international community. Before deciding to volunteer abroad, here's 10 things you should know.
1. Do your research.
Before deciding on a destination, you have to find a travel company that focuses on making a lasting, positive impact within the local community. Often, short trips don't allow participants to make deeper connections with the community. More permanent projects like setting up schools and hospitals, or ensuring the community has the resources and ability to continue developing once a service group leaves is more beneficial than doing a quick service stint and leaving. Community service can be rewarding, but in the end it is about the community's long-term development.
Once choosing a company, you have to choose where you would like to volunteer. Many travel organizations send service groups around the world, varying from Thailand, Peru or Fiji, with focuses on language or more service.
2. Don't go on a service trip just for college.
I'm not going to lie, I did write about my experiences abroad on my college application. However, don't do a service trip just to say you did a service trip. Colleges have seen it all before and will know if you just went to build up your résumé. Going on a trip is great, but it's how you use your experience to create change that will set you apart from the rest.
3. Be open.
When doing service in another community, you have to keep an open mind. Different communities have different cultural standards. It's imperative that you are respectful and open, especially when the hosts are welcoming you into their community and world. Don't be afraid to try new foods, learn a new language or do something adventurous you would never do at home.
4. Take lots of pictures.
While some trips don't recommend bringing a big camera, you should try to bring a little camera if possible (I still look back at pictures from all my trips). Some trips don't allow you to keep your phone, even to take pictures, so bringing a camera is a safe bet. You'll have lots of great opportunities, but the community isn't a tourist attraction. Remember to be aware of the right times to pull out a camera. Don't forget to show your friends and family when you get home, too!
5. Getting sick WON'T be fun.
When traveling, getting sick is always a risk as you're in a new environment. Some trips require a few shots or malaria pills. You should bring basic medicine, but your trip leaders will be prepared in case anyone gets truly sick. Take care of yourself: sleep, hydrate and eat, especially if you're doing strenuous service. Some communities won't have easy access to potable water, so be cautious. I got sick from bad water, and the bathroom was a small hole outside. Not fun.
6. Listen to the packing list.
Service trips usually have specific packing lists for each destination. Follow it. Try not to over pack, and don't be tempted to bring nice clothes. They will most likely get stained, lost or become so smelly that you won't want to bring them home. Everyone on your trip will be wearing comfortable and sensible clothes, so don't worry what you'll look like.
7. You'll make some great friends.
Service trips attract participants from all around the world. You're going to meet an interesting and diverse group of people that want to make a difference. Everyone will bring a different perspective to the group, but working on a large project will undoubtedly bring everyone together. Service trips are very inclusive — they start with a small group of strangers that slowly become a family, making unforgettable memories.
8. Get to know your trip leaders.
Service trip leaders are almost always adventurous and fun individuals. Many leaders have traveled extensively themselves, so don't hesitate to ask them for some great stories and jokes. Trip leaders are great mentors and are there to support you emotionally and physically as you work on a project. The leaders are trained to handle all sorts of bumps that can occur on a trip and to ensure that you're safe. Your leaders will also plan fun excursions for the group when you're not working.
9. You may come back with a different perspective.
Traveling to a developing country means you might see some things that you're not used to. Some communities you will work in may not be as fortunate, and seeing people living under difficult conditions can leave a lasting impact. Many of us don't realize how fortunate we are, and experiencing another way of life can be eye-opening. On one of my trips, I lived in a home with no running water or electricity, which I became accustomed to after a few weeks. Upon returning home, I experienced a reverse culture shock. I became upset with my way of life and the norms of my community. I still remember hysterically crying after seeing my shower and toilet after only using a squatty potty and bucket shower for all of the previous month. My friends couldn't really understand everything I had seen and I felt out of place. It took a while to get myself acclimated back to my normal daily life, but I shared my experience with others so they could understand my point of view.
10. Don't let change stop after the trip.
After the trip ends, take what you've seen and learned and bring it back to your community. Start a local chapter and encourage your peers to get involved in service abroad as well. You could even start your own charity! Its not impossible: my group started a charity after our trip to help a young man we met get enough money to be able to afford going to college. You could become an ambassador for a service organization and continue doing community service.
Overall, I recommend a service trip to everyone. They're a great way to see the world and provide the opportunity to learn about yourself, meet some great people and make a difference.
Lead Image Credit: Ali Acker