Volunteering abroad is a great way to immerse yourself in a different culture, while also working to improve some aspect of another country. It gives you a chance to see a destination beyond the tourist sites and often allows you experience a deeper connection with a place and its people.
But there is speculation about whether or not “Volun-tourism” is really all that beneficial. People argue that many travelers volunteer abroad for cheap or free housing, and for a new line on their resumes.
While I don’t completely disagree with this statement, I believe there are some important things to consider before signing up to volunteer abroad, to ensure that you can have the most positive impact possible on the communities you’ll be working in.
What Skills Do You Have?
Many people who volunteer abroad have little to no skill. How effective can you really be teaching English, when you have no prior experience teaching or leading children? Should you really sign up to volunteer as a surf instructor when you’ve never been on a surf board before?
It’s important to examine the skills you have and decide how you can best put them to use for the betterment of your project. If you have business experience, perhaps you should volunteer with an oversees NGO. If you’ve been babysitting since your pre-teen years, maybe childcare is the way you should go.
What Things Can You Not Live Without?
Can’t live without it? Avoid volunteering in rainy or humid locations.
When you volunteer abroad, you will be expected to immerse yourself in the local culture. People aren’t going to cater on you hand and foot just because you came to their country to help save the world. If you can’t live without warm showers or slathering make up on your face daily, perhaps you want to factor that into your decision to volunteer abroad. If you have very specific dietary needs, you will also want to consider those when choosing a location to volunteer.
How Much Time Do You Have?
How about volunteering on a pineapple farm?
It should go without saying that the more time you can dedicate to your volunteer project, the more impactful your work will be. If you have less than a month to dedicate to volunteering, it is advised that you choose a program that doesn’t involve children. It can be detrimental to a child’s sense of security to have volunteers cycling in and out of their lives. If you only have a small amount of time, choose a program that won’t require much training, such as farm work or animal conservation efforts.
What Languages Do You Speak?
Unless you’re a native English speaker volunteering to teach English, it is really important to consider your language skills. It can be difficult and often unimpactful to work in programs where the people around you speak a language you have no experience with. How much can you do when you’re unable to communicate well? Choose a program location where you have experience with the native language, or schedule yourself ample time to immerse yourself in language learning while there.
How Comfortable Are You With Culture Shock?
Not everyone can just slip in and out of a new culture with no problem. Often new cultures bring us challenges, confusion, and homesickness. If you haven’t experienced culture shock and you are unprepared to work through it, perhaps choose a program location with a culture more closely related to your own. This way, you can become comfortable faster and have a better impact with your volunteer program.
Have you volunteered abroad before? What other things should you consider?