In recent years, more and more college students are opting to volunteer abroad on their college breaks. While the idea of making a trip to another country may sound expensive, it is certainly doable, especially with the emergence of volunteer programs organized and subsidized by many schools. You may find yourself hearing more about your friends going to teach English in Nepal for instance than planning a trip to Miami on spring break!
Are you intrigued to do the same? Unsure how to make the best out of such an unconventional choice of school break? Below are some tips to help you have a great volunteer abroad experience.
Do a thorough research on the organization prior to applying.
When you search for volunteer programs online, you will come across hundreds of websites claiming to offer you the experience of a lifetime. While some of them might be credible organizations, you will also come across companies that overcharge for their programs. Do read reviews on the program and organization on other websites/forums before signing up for a project. You would not want to overpay for your stay!
Bring a good camera and carry it around.
If you are new to volunteering, you might make the mistake of just relying on your phone to take pictures during the trip. While this is not a mandatory requirement, you would definitely appreciate having a DSLR with you. This is especially true if you are going to be working with wildlife. You may be required to keep a certain distance even while helping to feed them or clean their cages. During your stay, you will experience many priceless moments with these animals, but a compact camera cannot do a good job in capturing them from such a distance. It would be a shame to not have a good record of these unique memories!
Prepare for it as you would for a new job.
You can never be over-prepared for a new adventure. Even if you have plenty of experience volunteering, do keep in mind that the site conditions would differ for each country. Different volunteer abroad programs would require a different set of skills from you, so it is always good to prepare yourself earlier. Contact past volunteers and learn from their experience with the organization. They often have valuable tips for you! You would also want to buy some basic necessities for the project prior to departure.
For instance, medical volunteers are usually required to bring their own medical tools while teaching volunteers are encouraged to prepare their own classroom activity aids.
Have a basic knowledge of the local language.
It is true that most volunteer programs that you sign up with will have English-speaking coordinators. Even the locals often can understand some basic level of English. However, at some point, you will end up in rural villages where English is absolutely foreign. Learning the local language will help break the barrier between you and the community that you are trying to help.
You are not expected to be fluent, of course, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say hi and greet the locals in their native language? A bilingual dictionary always comes handy in these situations!
Remember that things will not always be pretty.
When you volunteer abroad, a lot of things that you have been taking for granted in your life will turn out to be luxuries. Most project sites will not have Western toilets. Some toilets will even be as basic as a hole in the ground! Prepare yourself for cold showers in the morning as hot water may not be available. In some places, you will even have to carry buckets of water from the well to have a shower! In remote project sites, electricity could be run on a generator, and thus, might be turned off at certain hours for cost cutting.
If these conditions sound unbearable to you, think thoroughly before you sign up for a volunteering project abroad.
Immerse yourself in the local culture.
One of the perks of volunteering abroad is getting to learn about a completely different heritage and traditions. That being said, I have come across volunteers that try their best to avoid getting out of their comfort zone. You will meet people that insist on eating pasta and salad for their meals while avoiding all the local delicacies. Some even refuse to participate in any cultural events or local outings.
You will rarely get the opportunity to be this close to another culture. So, make full use of it. Be open to trying new things as long as they are not of any harm to you!
Volunteering abroad is a wonderful opportunity to help those in need while discovering your own strengths and weaknesses.
Grab this opportunity and make a difference in the world. Your volunteering experience will only be as good as you want it to be. Approach it with a positive attitude, and you will surely have a memorable time abroad!
Written by Iswari. Iswari is a small town girl that defied the odds to obtain a fully-sponsored education at Cornell University.
She is now back in Malaysia, tiptoeing around reverse culture shock while trying to remain sane in the corporate world.
Sociable yet private, detached yet faithful; she is a paradox.
Iswari’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/iswari.nallisamy
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