Are You Ready to Volunteer Abroad?

by Nicole Schollum

Volunteering abroad is an exciting and exhilarating experience which will help you learn and grow as a person, give you an entirely new perspective about the world, and an open-mindedness toward other cultures.  All this on top of contributing to worthwhile causes….perfect right?

The truth is that everybody has a different definition of what a “perfect” volunteering placement entails, and every volunteer takes away a different perspective depending on their individual mindset.

A boy holding a world map

The choice of location is yours

Volunteering is an amazing way to really see the world. Becoming part of the local community completely changes your views of a country and allows you to truly experience the different cultures. It can be scary and crazy at times, as you’re pushed past your comfort zone, but it is the most amazing and life changing experience.  - Amanda, Alumni Volunteer

The aim of this article is to ensure that you, the prospective volunteer, are prepared for the challenges intrinsic to volunteering abroad; so that you can get the most out of, and contribute the most to, your volunteering experience abroad. When you are deciding if you are ready to volunteer abroad, start by asking yourself the following questions:

Are you willingly to learn and change?

Firstly, are you prepared to be changed as well to work toward change?   

Time and time again, testimonials report that volunteering abroad was a “truly life-changing experience”, but the catch is that these are always from the volunteers who LOVED their placements. So the question is, did they go abroad with an open-mind, ready to learn about another culture, to go with the flow, and immerse themselves into the local way of life? I think it’s highly likely that they did.

Two boys doing some research on the internet

Do your research before you go

If you plan to volunteer abroad with a set ideas of how it “should” be or grandiose designs about how you will “change other people’s lives”, then I suggest you re-think your approach. Instead, try to keep an open-mind and go prepared for your volunteer placement, but willing to be flexible. Many of the countries in which volunteers are needed have few resources and only basic infrastructure and some initiative and “workarounds” are necessary. The best volunteers make the best of these situations.

Volunteering abroad presents a myriad of little challenges (simply booking flights and arranging visas can be complicated…and that’s before you even arrive), so it is essential that you are ready to volunteer abroad before you arrive. Language barriers and lack of familiarity with local ways can be very frustrating, and scary at times initially.  Those with a positive approach are able to move past these challenges and enjoy the elation that comes from surmounting these obstacles, often independently.

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home. – James A. Michener, Author

Girls using a water pump in Ghana

Running water in Ghana

Can you do without home comforts?

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” believes American writer, Neale Donald Walsch, and the one sure thing about volunteering abroad is that it will move you beyond your comfort zone!

Almost everything will appear different and strange at first; from the food, local transport and road rules, airports and shops, language and signs, people’s behavior and clothing, even the climate and weather will be different from that at home. Those who have traveled will testify that each location even smells different, from frangipani in Koh Samui to noodles in Hong Kong.  

What these differences mean is that you’re unlikely to get your single shot, soy, trim latte from a café if you decide to volunteer in Kampala. Even worse, there may not be washing machines and dishwashers; in fact, there may not even be hot running water or electricity or, heaven forbid, 24 hour wifi!!!   

Make sure you are ready to forgo these pleasures, for a short time, while volunteering abroad. 

Do you know how to manage your expectations?

Did you know that how you feel about your upcoming volunteering placement will impact on your actual enjoyment once you get there? By managing your expectations you can actually improve your chances of having a rewarding experienceThere’s two things going on here... 

Firstly, research has shown that those who expected to have an enjoyable experience were more likely to have a good time. So go in thinking “it’s going to be great” make it very likely that it will be!

Secondly, by aligning your expectations with reality you are more likely to have those expectations met, and therefore enjoy the experience. In fact, I personally find it useful, when traveling, to dampen down my expectations so that I’m pleasantly surprised when the reality is better than I expected. 

A man cooking

The facilities may be basic make the most of it

It’s a great idea to find out as much as possible about the location you intend to volunteer in before you go. The internet makes research super easy and you can even see photos that will help to form an accurate picture in your mind. There are also testimonials from past volunteers and social media sites where you can connect with those who have already been or who intend to volunteer abroad.  

If, having done your research, you suspect you may be unhappy with the conditions in a particular location, choose another location! Volunteering opportunities exist in countries as diverse as Australia and Senegal, so there’s no excuse for picking something that doesn’t suit you.

Do you fit the brief?

Having dealt with the mental and emotional side of preparations; what about the nitty gritty….

Age - Most volunteer organizations have a minimum age requirement. If you don’t meet this, then there may be the option of going with an adult or with parental consent, or postponing until you are older.  

Cost - Volunteering abroad is not an inexpensive undertaking. Make sure you have budgeted for all of the different aspects (including fees, flights, travel insurance, visas, vaccinations, and spending money).

Time Frame - Many programs have minimum stay requirements, many will be as short as just one week, but some can be as long as eight weeks, or more. Also, volunteer programs may have specific start dates, so make sure you choose a program that fits in with the time frame you have available.

Skills - Often the most beneficial characteristic a volunteer can have is a smiling face and an open-mind, and everyone has something to offer by volunteering abroad. Some volunteer programs, however, (for example medical placements) have set requirements, so make sure you choose a volunteer program that matches your abilities. Also, note the language spoken in a particular location, as it may not be possible, or worthwhile, to volunteer abroad somewhere you can’t communicate with the local people. 

A volunteer with a kid

A smiling face is a volunteer's best attribute

In conclusion...

The vast majority of volunteers have an incredibly worthwhile and rewarding volunteering experience abroad, and everyone is capable of being an amazing volunteer. Hopefully if you ask yourself the questions above, you will be sure that you are truly ready to volunteer abroad, and your experience will consequently be one of those 10/10, life changing events too!

This article was contributed by Love Volunteers, an international volunteer program provider offering placement opportunities in over 20 different countries across the globe, from Cambodia to Guatemala to Kenya to Mongolia. Love Volunteers is dedicated to providing, ethical, sustainable volunteer programs that allow international volunteers to make a real impact on developing countries.