As our world becomes smaller and global issues become more prevalent in international media, there is a visible shift towards an interest in international volunteer work. Volunteering abroad encompasses short-term trips to disaster-stricken areas, month-long trips to grass-roots organizations in need of volunteers and even multi-year long commitments to a new lifestyle of philanthropy — the Peace Corps is an incredible example of this.
Last year, I had the opportunity to volunteer for six weeks at The LaValla School, which is a school for the "severely physically-handicapped" in TaKhmao Village, Cambodia. My experience was inspiring, empowering and gave me a sense of purpose. Volunteer work is something that I would unequivocally recommend, however, there are some things to consider before you book your tickets.
1. ¿Hablas Español? ("Do you speak Spanish?")
It is highly likely that if you volunteer abroad, the primary language spoken in your chosen country will be something other than English. Often, if a country is still a primary economy, there will be a limited understanding of English amongst the locals (if any at all). This creates a whole host of challenges. Therefore, you need to ensure that you pre-educate yourself on some of the basics of their native language and also create a small list of words that you can teach them in English.
In a situation where you are unable to communicate with a local, stay calm. Remember, there is no reason for them to be able to speak English if that isn’t the norm in their country. Practice patience, use a two-way dictionary, utilize the many apps available online or, and I would highly recommend this, play charades. This "game-ifies" communication and prevents either party from getting frustrated.
2. Will you just visit, or integrate?
Before you embark on your journey, ask yourself: "Will I be an asset?" If you are volunteering for over two weeks and/or staying on-site, you will integrate within the community fairly quickly and be able to assess where you will be most useful. However, if you are only visiting for a week, the circumstances might be different. Many organizations will go out of their way to ensure that visitors and volunteers have a comfortable experience, but this might slow down their work or take away from other things they could be doing.
While these short-visits definitely make some tangible impact, you must consider the implications of the visit. Does spending six hours a day for a week in an orphanage really support the organization? For many organizations, the answer to this is an emphatic "yes," and in those cases it makes complete sense to volunteer. In the other cases though, where your impact may not be as pronounced, try to see if you are able to dedicate more time or commit to giving your 100% throughout your time there to maximize your significance.
3. Where do you want to call home?
Every volunteering experience is completely unique; the location, the organization’s focus, the community, the people you volunteer with and even the type of food you eat all shape your experience. A key factor of any volunteering trip is deciding where to spend your time. There are opportunities in the middle of jungles, in barren deserts, in rural schools, in refugee camps and even in large cities like London, Paris or Rome.
Each location presents a different set of challenges and opportunities and, ultimately, you should choose the one that you believe you can offer the most to. If you have experience with teaching children, try and look for schools that need volunteer English teachers. If you live on a farm, identify organizations that need agricultural support and outside expertise. It’s also important to remember what you want out of the experience. If you want to travel after your volunteer work, locate organizations that are in cities that you want to explore.
4. Are you going in with any expectations?
If you are? Honestly, try not to. Things will often not go according to plan and in many countries, the culture is vastly different from American culture. While "western culture" generally runs on schedule and carefully planned time-tables, I quickly learned that countries in Asia don’t often operate the same way. My responsibilities for the day were often decided minutes before I was needed, and the supplies I needed were seldom available. When you volunteer abroad, you learn to improvise, adapt and accept that things aren’t always what they seem.
People will surprise you, they might even annoy you, but remember that they appreciate you and are happy that you are there. One expectation you might have is that after you leave, the organization will forget you when another bright-eyed volunteer arrives. Know that this isn’t true. I learned that for months after I left, students would still wonder when I would come back and they would look at photographs we took together with faces of happiness and joy.
To be completely honest, volunteering abroad is tough. The hours are long, the environment isn’t always the best and the work can feel endless. It is, however, definitely worth the effort. I can’t begin to describe how my time volunteering in that little school in Cambodia has shaped me as an individual and how, if I had the opportunity, I would go back there in a heartbeat. Volunteering changes you; it pushes you and shows you what you are capable of. Take the time to consider volunteering abroad, then take the time to consider what’s mentioned above.
...Are you ready?
Pack your bags, it’s time to make a difference.
Lead Image Credits: Samay Bansal