Volunteering requires flexibility, patience, those who are self-starters, and people who genuinely respect the host people and their culture. Volunteers never go to teach the people western ways, nor are they there to save the people. Volunteers go to share their energy and time with the people, to experience their culture first hand and to grow themselves.
Volunteering abroad is also truly a study abroad experience. Every minute of everyday you will be a student.
Before you sign up you should consider the following:
Can you camp? Can you live without modern plumbing, hot water and electricity?
Most international volunteer experiences are hosted in developing countries. Before you go you should do some research. The last thing the volunteer organization and the locals need is someone complaining about the food. You will be surprised at how much or how little you need in the way of modern comforts to be happy. However, if you know yourself and you know that you wouldn't last an hour in a developing country there are still opportunities for you.
Are you open enough to accept and respect a culture no matter how different it is from your culture?
This may be one of the most difficult aspects of your volunteer experience. There will be aspects of the local culture that confound your sense of logic or challenge your sense of justice, however, remember you are the visitor. No solitary volunteer can change centuries of tradition or culture. You must look deep inside yourself and determine if you are flexible enough to respect the local culture before you go. Despite what you may have heard your job is not to teach the superiority of western ways. Some long term volunteer organizations like the Peace Corp may include utilizing modern technology in the fields of agriculture, education and business.
Are you comfortable with yourself?
At times you may feel isolated, particularly when you arrive in a village knowing no one. Many students travel because they are dissatisfied with the state of their life at home. This is the wrong reason to venture internationally. If you have problems at home ie. your boyfriend, your faculty, your roommates, don't expect those problems to disappear once you are out of the your own country. Chances are those problems will follow you and they will be more readily apparent with the additional cultural and adjustment issues.
Many western students don't know much about themselves. You may have a schedule that includes surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals all day everyday. You are with you roommates, classmates, party friends around the clock. Many volunteers are placed in an isolated situation like a wildlife reserve or a small rural village. Your social life or the lack there of will be entirely up to you.
Are you hungry to learn?
You may learn a new language, a new culture, a new way of life. Flexibility and patience are the keys to having a satisfying experience. Developing countries in particular are not as obsessed with time as the US or Europe. Often Schedules are ignored or appointments begin later than arranged. NGO's, international nonprofits and volunteer organizations are almost always understaffed. Your itinerary will not be as smooth and well organized as a tour or a Caribbean cruise. Things may seem disorganized at times. You may have to initiate your day to day itinerary. You may also encounter corruption, government officials and local administrators often work in ways that don't make sense to you. You have to accept the program and offer your services within those parameters.
What will I do?
Volunteer projects are as varied as you might imagine. Generally international volunteer experiences fall into four main arenas:
- Community Development— placements might be building a school, setting up a water treatment facility, cleaning the streets or planting trees.
- Education— teacher placement or acting as a teaching assistant in a local school or an adult education program.
- Eco-Environmental work— placements might be in wildlife reserves or national parks, monitoring endangered species, or working a reforestation project.
- Social Welfare— working with under-privileged children, working with a women's co-op, or working in a hospital or orphanage.
How do I get started?
Do your homework. Research existing volunteer programs. If you have questions about the quality of the program ask for alumni references. VolunteerAbroad.com is one of the largest directories on the internet. Organizations can list for free. As a result. you will find local co-ops and grass roots organizations listed who cannot afford paid directories.
Along with your sunscreen and mosquito netting be sure to pack your patience and flexibility. Then go abroad and have the experience of a lifetime!