5 Things Every Potential Volunteer Should Know
**This is a guest post from our friend Elaine Andres at Go Overseas. Elaine is a student at UC Berkeley majoring in rhetoric with an interest in global development. She is an experienced traveler and has volunteered in Tanzania. Check out Go Volunteer Abroad for program reviews, listings, interviews, articles and more!
It’s important to remember that volunteering abroad should not just be a glorified vacation with humanitarian pretense. Being a volunteer overseas can be an eye-opening and empowering experience, but only as much as you embrace the purpose of your travel and the challenges you will inevitably encounter on the way. Here are five things you can expect when volunteering abroad!
1. You will be an outsider so be open to cultural differences. While you will be taken care of, no one’s going to give you four star tourist accommodations to make you feel right at home. You may not speak the language, you might have to eat unfamiliar foods, abide by customs you’re not used to, and you may not even have electricity or running water. Embrace these differences as challenges and take your volunteer abroad program as an opportunity to really immerse yourself in a new culture.
Group of girls walking from school on Unaguja Island, Zanzibar. Photo: David Berkowitz
2. Always be smarter than your average tourist. Before you leave home, it’s important to always make sure your program really operates as an established and credible service organization. Try to consult past volunteers or read alumni reviews like those on Go Volunteer Abroad to see if a program provider is trustworthy or not. Once you arrive in country, just remember to keep your street smarts intact. Some people may try to take advantage of your good will and your status as a foreigner. You may be overcharged for a taxi or souvenir, or could be an easy target for a pickpocket. Read up on cultural practices before you leave to volunteer and talk to your program coordinators about local life and practices so you know what kind of environment to expect when you’re in the field.
3. Volunteering abroad for an NGO or non-profit can sometimes be frustrating. Some organizations may not run as smoothly as you expect, but not for lack of trying. They are often understaffed and lack resources and monetary support. If your transportation breaks down one day or if organization just seems off to you, take that as a sign of just how much you are needed as a volunteer. Before pointing a finger of blame, remember that you and your program staff are all there for the same reason and you have to do the best with what you have.
Two volunteers work together to finish the roof of their team’s home building project. Photo: Vision Service Adventures
4. You’ll have to remind yourself that you are there to volunteer. Often times, volunteers can get caught up in the scent of a new city. But before bar hopping or exploring on your first night abroad (and planning on it every night thereafter), remember the purpose of your travel. On your volunteer trip, you should be working on a specific project or program for the course of your stay. Allow yourself to become invested in the project, set goals for what YOU personally want to accomplish during your time there, and hold yourself accountable for completing the project successfully as a whole. You may not save the world, but you can only do as much as you try!
5. You can’t expect anything. Every volunteer abroad experience is unique and it will only be as good as you make it. Leave your pre-conceived notions about your program and the country you’re traveling to at home. Allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised and challenge yourself to thrive in whatever situation your program throws at you.
Main Photo: A volunteer from Bavaria takes pictures with her new friends at an orphanage in Thika, Kenya. Photo: Konstantinos Dafalias