Most people decide to volunteer abroad because of a burning desire to help others, or a curiosity in the way other societies function. I decided to volunteer in México when I was looking for an international experience other than tourism. I wanted an international travel experience, but also one that would let me go deeper into the culture and make an impact by letting me do some volunteer work.
My decision to volunteer in México taught me incredible things about myself, México, and the world as a whole. From this one experience, I learned many lessons in life that have stayed with me long after I returned home, and you will too if you follow in my footsteps.
Curious what volunteering in México could possibly teach you? Here are seven things I learned as a volunteer in México:
1. Small contributions can make a big impact.
As a volunteer in México, I didn’t expect to change the world. But, I soon realized that a small contribution can have a big impact on people’s lives.
2. Everyone can learn to adapt.
Don’t expect to have the same conditions that you have at home. What you take for granted at home may not be available where you volunteer abroad. From my experience volunteering in Mérida, internet access was not always available, and when available, it was very slow, which made it very difficult for me to stay in contact with my family and friends. Also, products at many shops didn’t display prices, so from my first day I knew I had to negotiate everything. People thought that I was a tourist, so they always tried to inflate the prices all the time. This, although exhausting, helped me with my negotiation techniques and became part of my daily routine eventually.
3. Communication is always possible.
Besides Portuguese, I also speak English, French, and Spanish, but at home in Portugal, I had little chance to practice my language skills with native speakers. Since I lived in a volunteer house while volunteering in México, I met people from all over the world with whom I was able to practice and improve my language skills. I saw other volunteers that never had learned Spanish in their lives who, after some time, were capable of having a basic conversation. Though secondary to your volunteer work in México, language learning will also be key to your experience.
4. Teamwork is necessary.
You will need to work as a team, and you will realize that you will need others’ help to succeed. The best thing about this? You will probably complete your volunteer work as part of a multicultural team. You will get to know different cultures and learn a lot from your fellow volunteers (aka. teammates). When I was volunteering in México, I worked with people from Germany, the U.S., Portugal, México, and even India, and I can say that I have learned something from all of them.
As a volunteer in México, you will be part of a team at some point, whether it’s a local team or a team with other volunteers, it all depends on the project. You will likely live with other volunteers too, and this will help you a lot, not only with language skills, but also with social skills.
5. Self-management skills are learned skills.
Yes, you’ll get to know a lot of people while volunteering in Mexico. And yet, you’ll be alone. You will need to manage your own time and you will need to manage your own resources; these are things that no one can do for you.
After a couple weeks of volunteer work in México, I had my own routine. I used to go to our local office in the morning, lunch, and for the afternoon work on my personal projects. All of this forced me to be very disciplined and to manage my time the best way I could.
6. It is better to be a volunteer, than a tourist.
First, it feels better. From my experience volunteering in Mexico, it feels good to feel you are useful and that your actions really have a positive impact. During my business development work, I could not directly help the community, like in many other volunteer projects, since I had no direct contact with the community. But, I soon realized that through my actions, whether it was implementing and developing marketing plans or helping to develop new projects, I was able to help the community through other volunteers and the organization I was working with.
Second, you have a greater chance to get to know people. I got to know a lot of people from every corner of the world, people with whom I shared a lot of new experiences, people who I consider as friends today. This, in my opinion, is something that you can only get when you embrace an experience like volunteering. It’s something that you won’t find when you are a tourist, and you’re focused on other interest.
Finally, volunteering abroad is about total immersion. I truly got to know the Mayan and Mexican culture. Through my daily life, whether it was through the food, the places I visited, or the everyday contact with the local community, I was able to immerse myself and get to know the local culture. These are all things you can’t get when you go on a typical tourist trip abroad.
7. The impact of volunteers is real.
I think that my volunteer work in Mérida will help a lot of people, through other volunteers or through projects I helped develop. I implemented marketing plans, I made new ones, I helped promoting new projects in new locations, and updated a lot of information; through all these actions, I think I really helped other volunteers.
I believe that through my volunteering, I was not just helping the people with whom I had direct contact, I was helping the entire community. I think that through teaching a simple English class, volunteers are not only helping their students in particular, but also the community by providing students with important tools needed for its future and development.
I believe the people we are helping today will help other people in the future, and maybe one day, our help will no longer be necessary. As Lao Tsu said,
If you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime”.
Volunteering abroad is an enormous and life-changing experience, but it can only help you if you embrace it. By the end of your volunteering in Mexico, you will see that you’ve gained more than you gave. At least that’s how I feel. In the end, it’s up to you to make an impact during your volunteer work in México, but you will surely learn many things about the world along the way.
This article was contributed by UBELONG, an organization offering volunteer programs around the world to thousands of volunteers annually. Established in 2009, UBELONG provides opportunities to volunteer in everything from education to conservation to business development.