Do You Have What it Takes to Volunteer Abroad? 

by Julia Zaremba

So, you want to join the waves of humanitarians making the world a better place? Great! Do you know what volunteering abroad actually requires, though? It might seem like an easy question, but it’s definitely not for everyone, and volunteering abroad definitely more than wrapping Christmas presents for a children’s home.

Smiling woman with arms stretched out
Are you comfortable with yourself? Are you open-minded? Are you really ready to be an international volunteer?

Volunteering is not synonymous with saving the world. It doesn’t mean going to Guatemala to improve houses nationwide, traveling to Sierra Leone to eradicate disease, or hiking deep into the Amazon to teach locals about the newest technologies. It’s not something to check off so your college applications include a “volunteer experience” section, or something you do because your school (or Mom and Dad) require community service, and it’s not just a way to show off your altruism and prove you are a “better” person.

In brief, volunteering abroad is NOT be synonymous with being a modern-day savior, but it is synonymous with giving time and skills for the benefit of a community. Still, not all volunteering abroad is quite that simple. International volunteer work requires you to have flexibility, patience, respect, and a good dose of humility. It also requires an understanding of why you are doing what, where, and with whom. One of the most important international volunteer requirements is clarity.

If you have an open mind, big heart, and strong hands, it’s a good indicator that volunteering abroad is for you. But these traits don’t necessarily mean you’ve met all the volunteer requirements for every program around the world; there are still a couple of other things to consider when you begin forming your volunteer expectations.

cafe terrace with friends sitting together
Are you ready to rewrite your definition of a social life? It probably won’t look like this. 

Before signing up for a volunteer program abroad, ask yourself the following questions (and be honest with yourself!):

Are you comfortable with yourself?

Many students travel because they are dissatisfied at home; this is NOT the best reason to venture abroad as a volunteer. If you have problems at home (i.e. boyfriend, school, roommates, work), don’t expect those problems to disappear once out of your own country. Chances are, those problems will follow you and be more readily apparent with the additional cultural and adjustment issues. It’s not bad to cross borders to seek self-betterment, but it’s also good to arrive with a basis of self-confidence and acceptance of yourself.

Get your volunteer expectations straight before you leave. Come ready to offer something and with a mindset of focusing on other people's needs and problems (they’ll make yours seem less dramatic, anyways).

Are you open-minded?

Volunteering is truly a study abroad experience; every day, there will be new skills, mentalities, and cultural quirks to learn. There might be aspects of local cultures that confound your sense of logic or challenge your sense of justice. However, remember that you are the visitor.

No solitary volunteer can change centuries of tradition or culture, nor is it their job to do so.

“Right” and “wrong” are subjective terms, and volunteering abroad isn’t about imparting Western wisdom. It’s just as much about learning new traditions and perspectives, and admitting that there is a lot out there that you don’t know, as it is about sharing your own skills and knowledge.

Dust churning over mens feet
Are you ready to get down to the nitty gritty as an international volunteer?

Are you adaptable socially?

While you will never be alone, you might feel isolated volunteering abroad, particularly when arriving to a new village or wildlife reserve by yourself. Even after you make a new group of friends, your new social life probably won’t revolve around bars or dance clubs. Instead, it might consist of chilling with some big cats, playing with kids after school hours, or discussing life with the volunteer coordinator. It might also mean a lot of solo time perfect for reading, contemplation, and taking life down a notch.

Read the volunteer requirements of your program very carefully, because we are pretty sure there isn’t anything about partying on there. Get started by finding out how old you have to be to volunteer.

Are you willing to rough it?

We’re not talking about the kind of camping that involves drinking beers and roasting s’mores around a fire, country music playing from a truck with its windows rolled down. How does life without plumbing, hot water, and electricity (that means no WIFI) sound? Most volunteer programs operate in developing countries, where amenities are few, but the learning opportunities are many. Once you detach, it’s amazing to realize just how little modern comforts people need in order to live and be happy. But you have to set your volunteer expectations ahead of time to fully embrace this.

If the idea of compost toilets, mosquito nets, lack of AC, and no Starbucks in sight inspires an uneasy laugh, it might be worth checking out more comfortable alternatives in more modern cities that have a different set of volunteer requirements.

Man welding in Vietnam
Are you ready to really work? This won’t be like a vacation.

Are you ready to learn?

Change and exponential growth are a given with the proper volunteer abroad experience. Not only is there the possibility of learning new words in foreign languages or fresh recipes from verbal traditions, but culturally, you will become a richer person. Perspectives are widened, understanding is expanded, and mentalities are enriched. In addition to picking up a few skills, you’ll also learn about what roles, environments, and activities you enjoy. This self-clarity can be extremely useful when tackling future projects, both in and out of the volunteering realm.

Are you ready to work?

There are many different types of volunteering organizations: volunteering-focused, voluntourism, global service learning, community organizations, partner agencies, and more. There are also a lot of different fields with differing volunteer requirements, such as: community development (i.e. building schools, planting trees, developing community activities), education (i.e. helping out at schools or teaching English), environmental work (i.e. conservation projects, sustainable development), and social welfare (i.e. orphanages, women’s co-ops). However, all of these types of volunteering require a lot of dedication, both physically and mentally. If getting dirty, sweaty, emotionally-involved, and sore doesn’t sound like fun, reconsider if you have the right volunteer expectations to make it as a volunteer abroad.

girl doing yoga near the water
Are you flexible? – Maybe not literally, but you need to be flexible and adaptable as a volunteer abroad.

Are you flexible?

Flexibility and patience are the keys to having a satisfying volunteer experience, both in regards to program organization and the actual workload. Developing countries are not as obsessed with time as the U.S. or Europe, for example. Often, appointments begin later than arranged and schedules are not followed. NGO’s, international nonprofits, and volunteer organizations may be understaffed, and your itinerary will not be as smooth as a Caribbean cruise. It is important to adapt to new roles and situations, and treat each day as its own beneficial adventure.

Proper awareness is essential for a volunteer abroad experience beneficial to both program participants and the local community. Just as important as researching the intentions, impacts, requirements, and reputations of volunteer organizations is reflecting to your own soul, motivations, and volunteer expectations.

If there is a higher calling that goes beyond casting a good light upon yourself and impressing others, and you realize that volunteering is more about learning than teaching, then join the ranks of do-gooders and prepare yourself for the most transformative experience of your life. Merge ethics and resources into a winning combination with lasting impacts, both on the world and yourself.

Check out GoAbroad’s volunteer directory to get started, and then save and compare programs side-by-side with MyGoAbroad today!