Top Regrets of International Volunteers

by Elsa Thomasma

We hear it over and over again in interviews, reviews, and testimonials from alumni volunteers; they all wish they had known the same things, wish they had done things in a different way, or had planned for their eyes to be opened and their hearts to grow attached to their new found homes.

If you are contemplating volunteering abroad, or in the midst of planning your trip, be sure to read this list of top regrets of international volunteers, before you follow in their footsteps! 

Keep in mind: regardless of regrets, all individuals who volunteer abroad tend to come home with the same evaluation of their experience, it was an incredible valuable life-changing experience.

Children in a rural village with volunteer

Elsa with the kids of Cangumbang in the Philippines

I wish I stayed longer.

Nearly every volunteer has a hard time saying goodbye when their departure is approaching. Whether they have grown attached to the children at the orphanage, the staff members they have worked closely with, their fellow volunteers, or their host family, volunteers undoubtedly form meaningful relationships and connections during their volunteer program, and it will be difficult to say goodbye. When the time comes, you will hear volunteers expressing this regret loud and clear, on the way to the airport, on the plane ride home, or on social media once they return, they all wish they had stayed longer.

To avoid this regret, go for a long-term volunteer placement of at least three months, and if you are really adventurous try six months or a year!

I wish I learned the language.

Though in many countries around the world there is a high degree of English language skills, that shouldn’t stop you from picking up some of the local language or dialect. You may think it is easier to just communicate in English, but when you return home you will soon realize that you missed out on your extraordinary chance to learn a new language from locals, who you could speak with every day! Try speaking with children first, if you want to practice the basics and not feel too much pressure to say things perfectly, and you will gradually find yourself feeling more comfortable ordering food, giving directions, and asking day-to-day questions.

Be proactive about learning the local language of your volunteer program destination, take advantage of language lessons made available to you, and practice whenever you get a chance!

I wish I had spent more time with my host family.

It may seem more natural to hang out with other international volunteers that are dealing with the same adjustments and cultural novelties as you, who understand your language perfectly, are the same age, and who live a similar lifestyle as you back home; however, spending the majority of your time with other volunteers won’t give you the same connection with the local culture and people, or create the exact lasting impact you may be looking for. Make time for your host family, even if it is simply watching TV with them before bed, asking your host mother how she prepared a dish for you, or sharing some information about your own family with them. Building connections with your host family will make you feel more at home, and provide you with a home away from home for years to come.

To ensure you don’t regret the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with your host family, choose to spend time with them for at least a few hours every day and show an interest in their lives (and don’t forget to keep in touch when you return home too!).

I wish I learned more about the culture before I arrived.

It is inevitable that you will feel some level of culture shock upon arrival and throughout the first few days of your volunteer program abroad, despite any amount of reading or preparations you do before you depart. However, there are some that arrive without any basic knowledge of family relations, cultural traditions, or political history. Inquire from your volunteer organization or spend time researching online, read as many articles as you can about the local culture of your volunteer placement. Go beyond the currency, climate, and cuisine information to find out more about the societal practices and social expectations, and whatever else might interest you.

Don’t arrive completely oblivious to the local culture, take time to seriously learn about what to expect from family life, social interactions, and community work.

A volunteer playing with the kids

I wish I had traveled more or planned my weekends better.

When you already on the other side of the world doing volunteer work, why not plan a few weeks of extra travel after your program? The costs of traveling throughout India, for example, will be much lower if you are already in country, have locals to give you tips, and know the ins and outs of transportation and top places to see. Take advantage of your time off, and your opportunities to step away and digest everything you experience, and plan time to explore the country, or just relax on a beach. However, don’t make the mistake of prioritizing your travel so much that you miss out on opportunities to attend cultural events or volunteer on special projects in the community or city where you placement is located.

Give yourself a little “wiggle room” after your volunteer program abroad, so you can have the freedom to explore the country further and see all the top sites (or you can always just extend your volunteer work).

I wish I started a blog, journaled more, or took more photos.

Whether it is your first time volunteering abroad or your tenth, you will greatly appreciate the memories you make during your program. Although it is sometimes hard to put your experiences into words, explain what you learned to family and friends, or illustrate a culture or event through a picture, creating a physical representation of your time abroad will help you reflect and remember everything more clearly for years. Volunteering abroad is not just about helping, it is about learning, and sharing what you learn through blogs and photos can help open up the eyes of those close to you back home about what you are experiencing. And, a journal is a perfect way to reflect on your personal struggles, and it will be fun to look back on how you grew over the course of your program.

Take the time to create a blog, journal about your experiences, and document your trip through photos, and you will surely not regret it!

I wish I could have helped more.

When you arrive as a volunteer abroad in a completely new place, you won’t know the ins and outs of the society, culture, and challenges faced by locals; this will leave you with a bit of a learning curve, which often impedes volunteers from making the impact they want to right away.

Try not to focus on quantifying the help you provide during your volunteer program abroad, instead focus on the little ways that you are helping individual people each day.

The baby you rocked to sleep at the orphanage, the child you taught a new word to, the adult you provided medical care for, these are all incredible forms of helping that you may easily overlook if you are too focused on changing the whole world during your program.

Have a regretful volunteer abroad experience by embracing the little things you do each day to help others, and when you return home, continue giving back to the communities you served by fundraising or promoting your volunteer program.

Don’t forget that in the end, you can always volunteer abroad again, right?