Ever get the feeling that you have a higher calling? You know, that you have a special purpose on this earth beyond the corporate world, MCATs and IPOs. In fact, if you had the chance, you would surely save the world. Well, perhaps not the world, but some small part of it. Volunteering abroad is one way to make a difference, but it's not for everyone. Here are a few things to consider before you sign up for the Peace Corps.
Reasons to volunteer abroad
See the world with a purpose. Some travelers are content partying their way around the world. You, however, are looking for a more substantial experience. Volunteering not only provides you the opportunity to give back, it gives you something to do, somewhere to go, and somewhere to stay. You'll still have plenty of time to explore local ruins or have a lager down at the pub. But one word of warning: don't set out to change the world - you'll be disappointed to learn that the world doesn't necessarily need or want changing. The best goal is to challenge yourself everyday, test your patience and open your mind and heart.
By volunteering abroad you will learn much about yourself. You will do things that you never imagined you were capable of. The biggest difference you will notice at the end of the program will not be external; it will be the difference inside of yourself.
In most cases residents could do your job better, faster and more efficiently. You probably won't teach the locals how to hammer a nail, but you will share your friendship with them. Most importantly, you will be changed forever because you will have a greater understanding of another culture, you will challenge your personal limits, and you will develop friendships.
Unlike paid employment, volunteering abroad provides a more flexible schedule and varying time commitments. You may choose to participate in a work camp in France for two weeks, volunteeri abroad with street kids in Peru for three months, or teach school in Nicaragua for two years.
In some cases you may find a volunteer abroadgig in your field of study. A marine biology student could monitor turtles in Costa Rica, an engineering student can build houses in Israel, and an archeology major can go to a dig in Morocco. A volunteer abroad position can give you the hands-on experience you won't get stuffing envelopes for an internship. Many future employers highly value volunteerism. It will show that you're flexible, patient and committed.
There are few travel experiences that are cheaper then volunteering abroad. Most volunteer placement organizations charge a fee, which will typically cover room/board, orientation and the program itself. Many volunteers cover their expenses through letter-writing campaigns to family and friends, contributions from churches or student organizations, and other donation-driven efforts.
Fundraising is a simple way to pay for a volunteer excursion abroad. By writing to family members, friends and possibly teachers about your opportunity abroad, you may be surprised by their generosity and willingness to help you pay for your trip. Certainly some of the best sources for small scholarships or donations are local community groups tied to the region you're visiting. If you are going to work in Guatemala, for example, contact either a local or national Guatemalan community organization and see how they may be able to help you. Maybe you can perform a slide show for them upon return, or speak at a function they sponsor, and they may have funds to help you help their community.
Many organizations will provide you with sample fundraising letters from past volunteers. Recent Building Hope volunteers held a volleyball tournament to raise cash. Volunteers also have biked across their state or cleaned up their neighborhood to raise funds. And visiting your church or local organizations with ties to your destination is also typically a good source of financing.
Students have asked me, "Why do I have to pay to go work overseas?" Unless you are a doctor or engineer or you are planning to spend a year or two volunteering, there is usually a fee to be paid. Perhaps you are going to build a school in the Philippines, the volunteer organization needs to pay for building supplies, arrange the logistics of the program, provide homestays in the local village, create brochures and market their program. If the only objective was to build the school they would be better served hiring local craftsmen at a low cost and complete the project in a short time. The goal of the organization more likely involves providing a cultural experience for you and for the local volunteers and letting you see life in the Philippine village.
Can you handle it?
Volunteering abroad requires flexibility and patience; it's for those who are self-starters and who genuinely respect the host people and their culture. Volunteers never go to teach the people Western ways nor are they there to "save" the people. Volunteers go to share their energy and time with different people, to experience different culture first hand and to grow themselves. Before you sign up, you should consider the following.
Can you camp? Can you live without modern plumbing, hot water and electricity? Most international volunteer experiences are hosted in developing countries. Before you go you should do some research. The last thing the volunteer organization and the locals need is someone complaining about the food or the accommodations. You will be surprised at how much or how little you need in the way of modern comforts to be happy. However, if you know that you wouldn't last an hour in a developing country there are still opportunities for you.
Are you open enough to accept and respect a culture no matter how different it is from your culture? This may be one of the most difficult aspects of your volunteer experience. There will be aspects of the local culture that confound your sense of logic or challenge your sense of justice. But remember, you are the visitor. No single volunteer can change centuries of tradition or culture. You must determine if you are flexible enough to respect the local culture before you go. Despite what you may have heard, your job is not to teach the superiority of Western ways in the fields of agriculture, education and business.
Are you comfortable with yourself? At times you may feel isolated, particularly when you arrive in a village knowing no one. Many students travel because they are dissatisfied with the state of their life at home. This is the wrong reason to venture internationally. If you have problems at home with your boyfriend, faculty or roommates, don't expect those problems to disappear once you are out of the United States. Chances are those problems will follow you and they will be more readily apparent with the additional cultural and adjustment issues.
Many Western students don't know much about themselves. You may have a schedule that includes surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals all day, everyday. You are with your roommates, classmates, and party friends around the clock. Many volunteers are placed in an isolated situation like a wildlife reserve or a small rural village. Your social life or the lack thereof will be entirely up to you.
Are you hungry to learn? You may learn a new language, a new culture, a new way of life. Volunteering abroad truly is a study abroad experience. Every minute of every day you will be a student.
Are you flexible? Flexibility and patience are the keys to having a satisfying experience. Developing countries in particular are not as obsessed with time as the U.S. or Europe. Often, schedules are ignored or appointments begin later than arranged. Non-governmental organizations, international non-profits and volunteer organizations are almost always understaffed. Your itinerary will not be as smooth and well organized as a tour or a Caribbean cruise. Things may seem disorganized at times. You may have to initiate your own day-to-day itinerary.
You may also encounter corruption, or government officials and local administrators who work in ways that don't make sense to you. You have to accept the program and offer your services within those parameters.
What will I do?
Volunteer projects are as varied as you might imagine. Generally international volunteer experiences fall into four main arenas.
How do I get started?
Do your homework. Research existing volunteer programs. If you have questions about the quality of the program ask for alumni references. There are two directories on the Internet that will be useful in your research:
www.StudentTraveler.com: Partnered with GoAbroad.com, this is one of the largest directories on the Internet. Organizations can list for free; as a result you will find local co-ops and grass roots organizations that cannot afford paid directories.
www.idealist.org: This is a great resource. In addition to listing volunteer placement organizations, this directory includes programs that are soliciting financial support, so make sure you understand the motives of the organization before you inquire.
Volunteering abroad is like no other international experience. You are working but not paid. You're an outsider immersed in a new culture. And you are giving to the community, but also receiving from them.
Photos by Jeff Booth