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Volunteer Overseas Experience, Volunteer Abroad
By: REINA VICTORIA (justin) 2012.04.01



Working with a variety of organizations in 7 countries, BaseCamp offers tailored volunteer training and mutually benefiting placements. Volunteers work in schools, social and healthcare programs, building projects, as well as conservation work with wildlife. Travel with a purpose. See website.


On the plane ride home from a volunteer abroad experience, many people will have one resounding question in their head: "Now what?" After volunteering in a far-away country, one of the hardest things you will have to do is return home. You may not have performed a major miracle, but at least you will have helped a lot of people while you were there.

There are a many questions about life after volunteering in a foreign country. Even if you haven't volunteered and you are just starting to consider it, you might be wondering what happens to a person once they return. Do they really change? What have they really gained from their experience?

Ashlee Andridge, a California State University, Fullerton alumna, spent a week volunteering in the Dominican Republic with her church group, helping to build a church and interacting with the international community. She went to help the impoverished, but little did she know that they would help her break down her own misconceptions of poverty, as well as her view of her life in America. "I arrived home to an airport filled with tourists returning from luxurious vacations," Andridge wrote of her volunteer experience in Cal State Fullerton's student magazine, Tusk. "People crowded Starbucks at every terminal and others indulged in cell phone conversations. Everyone was so determined and I realized it's for them I feel sorry."

Volunteer programs are varied in both the length of the program and the amount of cultural immersion. The longer you stay, the more adjusted you become to behaviors, languages and a certain way of life. All this can cause problems upon your return home.
The return to American life produces an effect that many refer to as reverse culture shock. Sometimes the hustle and bustle of America can be hard after two years of living in a different environment, and you'l need some time to collect yourself and readjust.

Kam Santos, director of communications for Cross-Cultural Solutions, agrees that when you come home, you are so used to another country that you can feel misplaced. Of course, the strength of the problem depends on how long you'e been away.
" you go for a week, there' still going to be that culture shock, but not as much as if it was a month,"Santos said. Cross-Cultural Solutions'programs run from one to 12 weeks, whereas the Peace Corps runs for 27 months.

According to Marion, the Peace Corps sets up services for its returning volunteers to take part in. These services can help to integrate them back into the United States as they allow time for readjustment.
Santos said that volunteers usually talk about their experiences after they return, and work through their reverse culture shock by showing pictures and talking about their lives in other countries. Usually they talk to family and friends, who are more than willing to listen.

NEW LIFE, NEW JOB Approximately 96 percent of current Peace Corps volunteers have at least an undergraduate degree. When they return home and complete the readjustment period, it's usually time to start looking for a job or to start considering grad school.
Peace Corps volunteers often come back and take a job in government. Some have become ambassadors and congressmen. However, there are also those who start their careers as entrepreneurs, such as Reed Hastings, the founder of the popular online movie rental service Netflix.

A big option for many ex-volunteers is to stay active in non-profits. Volunteers in Asia, also known as VIA, is a non-profit Asian volunteer program based in Stanford, California. Their volunteering alumni have stayed active in non-profits such as UNICEF and CARE USA.

Their volunteering alumni also continue to work for VIA, as half of the program's office is made up of former volunteers. Christine Tram is the Vietnam program director for VIA, but in 2001 she was a volunteer.

"Immediately after I came back, I was looking for jobs in that area,"she said regarding her volunteering with a non-profit. She started searching for other non-profits to work for and ended up working at a foundation before she returned to work for VIA.

"I wanted to come back to VIA," she said, "I was just waiting for the right time."
Tram is not alone. Many people who come out of volunteer programs decide to work for the same organizations they volunteered with. Peace Corps spokeswoman Melissa Marion said that many Peace Corps volunteers continue to work for the agency based in Washington, D.C., as they have many positions that can o­nly be filled by former volunteers. Santos also said that many staff members for Cross-Cultural Solutions were volunteers previously.
Tram started coordinating the Vietnam program for VIA in 2003, and was happy to be back after working for another foundation for a couple of years. For her, the program was a wake-up call for what she wanted to do with her working life.
"It changed my perspective and what I wanted to commit myself to 40 hours a week," she said.

Other former volunteers try to maintain an awareness of what's going on in their volunteer country, and often promote advocacy and solidarity work through other organizations. For Santos, this is especially important for Cross-Cultural Solutions, where one of its three goals is to effect positive change. They take the volunteer experience and show volunteers how to use it when they return to their home country.
Even if you don't end up working with the skills that you acquired during your volunteer experience, the most important thing is to stay connected with the friends that you made and the country that you were volunteering in. Talking to people who might be on their way to your volunteer country or researching your volunteer country are ways to stay connected to the experiences that you had.

Regardless of what you got out of your experience as a volunteer, the work you did surely influenced others in a positive way. In the end, the most important thing that your volunteer experience accomplished was that it changed you, your outlook on the world, and how you live in it.

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