6 Things I Learned Volunteering Abroad in Peru  

by Mary Ellen Dingley

Volunteering abroad taught me all sorts of hands on, full-color, immersive lessons that I could not have experienced in a classroom. Volunteering in Peru, a country that sparked my imagination since I was very young, was a dream come true. I loved ancient civilizations, eating up National Geographic articles, and playing Ages of EmpireNot to mention the Inca Empire was my favorite; they created beautiful cities from hand carved, perfectly fitted rocks! They had mummies. They used knots in rope, called quipus, to record messages. They had incredible history that was deeply intertwined in the land and its remedies. They ate over 4,000 kinds of potatoes, and some of them were purple!

Machu Picchu in Peru

To a budding anthropologist, the Incas were everything fascinating. I peppered every conversation with facts about them (to the patient bewilderment of my family). With all that nerdy obsession, I leapt at the chance to go to the ancient Inca capital city of Cusco to volunteer.

Read on to find out what lessons I learned, and maybe you'll learn a few yourself in the process. 

1. Not all volunteer experiences are created equal.

Volunteering can be a great way for communities to receive much needed support. But, volunteers must always do their research to make sure their volunteer opportunity is sustainable, efficient, and ethical. I volunteered in Peru twice; the first time, my volunteer trip was not efficient, but the second time it was all of those wonderful things and it changed my life! 

When I first volunteered in Peru, I was so unprepared. It was my very first time volunteering abroad, and I did no research and put no thought into it. You know those Facebook memories that pop up in your notifications? Some of mine show me trying to raise money for that trip and I couldn’t even explain what project we would be working on! I was asking people for money for something I knew nothing about. I didn’t know if it was going to be sustainable, but I still asked people to give. I am embarrassed by my past self. Come on, Past Self, be better!

And then our group arrived in Peru, and honestly, we were kinda useless. We were doing a construction project (poorly) that locals could have done far more efficiently if we had just sent money instead of our untrained selves. What’s more, I don’t think our agency was paying our host families enough to feed and house us. It was a “service learning” trip, and while I certainly learned a lot, the service side was seriously lacking.

But, in contrast to that first trip, my second experience volunteering in Peru was amazing! I returned to study abroad in Peru and started volunteering weekly for the full five months I was there, teaching English in an after school program for at risk kids. Now this was useful volunteering. I was using a skill I had experience with, teaching children. The project was sustainable and locally driven. My long stay meant I was able to learn and invest in the community. This weekly volunteering became the most meaningful part of my study abroad program!

I now train a critical eye on all volunteer trips, especially short term ones. I make sure to ask questions about the community and environmental impact, the sustainability, how the organization uses the resources, and the local participation in the project.

A little research goes a long way!
A woman with her sheep in near Lake Titicaca in Peru

2. Working cross-culturally is challenging, but amazing.

During my long-term, weekly volunteering everyone I was working with were local Peruvians. The director of the center, his family, my students, the parents, they were all local which (1) was evidence of a healthy, locally supported volunteer opportunity and (2) was an amazing opportunity to learn more about the community.

Working in this immersive atmosphere could also be hard sometimes, because of the language barrier and cultural differences. At one point I was so confused I emailed an English speaking member of the organization to explain things to me! But, everyone was very patient with me and my Spanish improved.

I was also exposed to the community life by proud community members, able to hang out and eat delicious local food, and it made my entire experience more authentic and rich. Nothing beats being invited to share some Inca Cola after an afternoon of teaching. I ended up bringing in some Peruvian students from the university where I studied and got them plugged into some volunteer opportunities as well!

3. Stepping out of your comfort zone is its own reward.

The short term volunteer trip I went on kept us fairly insular; I was always with other students from my university and with translators, which was fun, but it didn’t stretch me much. Everything was planned for us and we were politely guided each step of the way.

For my long-term volunteering in Peru, I struck out on my own and on my first day; I became completely lost! I was riding along in a little motoconcho, across desert hills, trying desperately to communicate with the driver. But, I eventually made it and the sense of independence in learning Lima’s public transportation, and my courage from taking that step, was huge. It painted the rest of my experience abroad. If I could do that, what else could I do?

I was more confident in making Peruvian friends, traveling around the city, and bonding with my host family because I had crossed the line of my comfort zone.

I grew as a person from my 'uncomfortable' experiences as a volunteer in Peru.
Llamas in Peru

4. My own subconscious privilege.

As mentioned, on my first trip I did not even think it was important to do any research. I was full of the very worst of the white savior complex, a naive idea that no matter what we did, of course it would be helpful, right? Because we were nice people, right? Wrong.

Just because I was a nice person did not mean I knew how to best help people living in an area I had never visited.

My privilege centered around this idea that I was entitled to show up and do whatever I wanted to. Luckily, the leaders on the “learning” side of the “service learning” trip were there to teach us some critical thinking, and shared this scathing essay with us as an opposing perspective on volunteering. And all of the sudden it hit home for me. Just because I could come traipsing into a small town in Peru didn’t mean I had the right to. I had never questioned whether we were invited or even wanted at all!

That is the ultimate privilege isn’t it? To think that all spaces are open to you at all times. As travelers, we have to think about the spaces we are entering and whether we come as invited guests or intruders.

In the end, I don’t think anyone really cared we were in the community during that week. But the fact that I didn’t even question it? That’s messed up. We must think about where we are going and the room we are taking up. Now I’m much more cognizant of this nuance. Is my presence in X town going to cause disruption? This served me well when I stepped into tense places such as a Haitian immigrant town in the Dominican Republic. I was able to navigate the political and cultural tension over immigration by utilizing what I had learned volunteering in Peru.

5. HOW we do things matters as much as WHAT we do.

While volunteering in Peru, the organization I worked for weekly was innovative and well-planned, with a set up that was efficient and respectful of the local community. They provided free training and courses for community members, and then offered grants to those community members for locally-led projects. This meant that all projects were conceptualized, planned, implemented, and led by locals, with training and funding provided by the center.

That center could have repaired schools and built soccer fields without that grant-based setup, but their approach made sure all projects had local investment! It operated in a way I had never seen before, and was highly successful. Seeing such an innovative approach blew my mind, and it’s what made me want to study international development. 

Remember, how matters.

Peruvian women in their traditional dress

6. It is important to embrace the ambiguity.

The world is complex, and there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to issues like poverty, inequality, lack of education, etc. The roots of problems can vary by place, the symptoms may appear different, and a working solution in the highlands of Peru might fail in the suburbs of Lima.

Volunteering in Peru immersed me in the complexity of the local context. And this lesson carried over into life.

“It depends” is often a better answer than “yes, always” or “no, never.” Nuance, open minds, and a celebration of diversity are all necessary in navigating our global context.

Volunteering in Peru not only changed my academic and career path, but it changed how I saw the world and myself. It gave me courage, comfort in gray areas, critical thinking, and an appreciation of others. Who knows what lessons you could learn if you strike out and volunteer abroad?

Get out there with your open heart and soul!