Congrats on finishing your volunteer project abroad!
You’re likely both exhausted and energized from long days and meaningful work. Hopefully you worked hard on something that will outlast your visit, something sustainable and locally driven. You might be dealing with a bit of reverse culture shock if you’ve been away from home for awhile or maybe just shock in general if this was one of your first trips abroad! Getting outside of your comfort zone can do that to you. Take the time to rest, but not too much time.
Remember: It’s only just the beginning. Now the REAL work begins. So what now, what do you do? If you’re not sure about your next steps after volunteering abroad, read on for some excellent pro-tips and suggestions to help keep your generous spirit alive and fed.
Here’s what to do now
1. Unpack! Physically and metaphorically…
You’ve seen and done a lot. Carve out space to process and reflect. What did you learn? Was your presence useful to the community? DId you carry stereotypes or “white savior” ideas that you had to shake? How will this influence or impact your life back home? Get your journal or your friend or just yourself and your thoughts and sit for awhile. Think about what was hard and what was good.
Oh and also unpack your bag. Don’t just leave that on your floor for the next three months. Yes, we’ve all done it, but it’s not great.
2. Write an update to anyone who donated to your volunteer project
Did you fundraise to be able to volunteer? Then let your supporters know how much they helped! Tell them the outcome of the project and your next steps after volunteering abroad. And honestly, let them know if the volunteering didn’t help. Yeah, that sounds no fun, but if the community where you volunteered unfortunately didn’t benefit much from the project and still needs help, be honest about what was happening. Talk about the mistakes made. Maybe more research was needed. Maybe more local buy in. Let people know.
This can be a lesson learned for everyone about the real life complexities of volunteering and one of the best final steps you can do after volunteering abroad. But even if the project didn’t work out, you can thank them for supporting a trip that could have changed your own life.
3. Find volunteer projects in your local community
Your hometown probably needs your skillset too! Take your post-volunteering inspiration and put it to good work in your own neighborhood. Ask about what’s needed—support for the homeless? Trash clean up? And figure out a way to tackle the problem, whether that’s a one time clean up or a long term plan. Get involved in organizations already doing the hard work of community support and see where your skills can fit in. Learn from them. You might think you know everything about your hometown, but with a fresh perspective from being abroad you’ll probably be seeing it in a new light.
4. Keep in touch with your host organization abroad and continue supporting their work in creative ways
Just because you aren’t there it doesn’t mean you can’t help! Coordinate fundraising—host a dinner, a 5K, or another fun event to raise money for the organizations. Run their social media—this can be harder without being there to take photos, but you can still update with relevant news and articles. Maintain their website—if you have coding or content writing skills, you can do that from anywhere! More and more jobs are remote, so there’s often no excuse not to help even if you’re far away.
5. Be an advocate for the cause, the project, or the organization
As outsiders to the communities abroad where we volunteer often the BEST way we can help is by being a liason and advocate for the cause—not for people but with people. You have a foot in both places now, and you can use your skills to tell important stories when you’re back home, to uplift the story of a place and of people your hometown might otherwise never hear. Advocate by speaking at events or writing op-eds, by sharing on social media, or simply talking with friends.
Make sure you don’t make it about you or oversimplify—complex is hard, but whitewashing a multilayered problem helps no one. You could even become an alumni ambassador for the program you went with! Speaking to others looking for a meaningful volunteer experience and sharing your experiences can be powerful next steps after volunteering abroad.
6. Find meaningful work, maybe even a career change?
Maybe volunteering abroad was your “gap” between school and a job, and now it’s time to buckle down on the job search or to jump into one you already locked down. Maybe it was a way to transition away from a job and into a career change. Use the energy and new perspective that volunteering gives you to find work that is truly meaningful—whatever that means to you!
Sometimes you just need to pay of the student loans or get your foot in the door of an industry, and that could mean your job isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. It can still have meaning, even if that meaning is building yourself a solid financial foundation. Whether you’re working, on the hunt for work, or transitioning to new work, let your volunteer experience help guide you.
What did you love about volunteering? Can you find aspects of that in a job? What did you not like? After your international volunteer project, take time to reflect on your path and make changes that feel right and thought-through.
7. Are you in school? Choose courses that will continue to inspire you (to help others!) and join social-minded clubs on campus
Lucky you—you’re at a time in your life devoted to learning. Keep in learning about that cause or issue or region you experienced via volunteering! Check out courses that will help you dig deeper into issues like conflict and peacebuilding or gender inequality or food security. Soak in that learning while you continue figuring out what to do after volunteering abroad. Join an organization to help advocate or fundraise for a social cause you care about. And there are so many opportunities on a campus to start something new! If you don’t see a club where you can continue your volunteer work, then create it yourself!
8. Keep learning ( ← most important!)
Even if you aren’t in school, there’s learning to be done. Commit to learning more about the topic you volunteered with, because we all know its wayyy more complicated than you thought! Find resources online (Coursera is great for free classes) or at a library or bookstore. If there’s a college or museum nearby, see if there are evening lectures. Try Meetup to find other people in your area who want to discuss your passion. This way you won’t talk your friends’ ears off—instead you can swap stories and knowledge with people who get it!
Other fun things to do
- Travel more! Maybe don’t race home just yet. Or get home to rest a bit and head back out the door! If you have the time, money, and health for the moment then get out there. The world wants to see your face. Not sure where you want to head next? Get program recommendations from our Online Advisor.
- Take time to recalibrate your goals. One of the great things about travel, and especially meaningful travel like volunteering, is that it makes you look at things a little differently. It throws you out of your comfort zone for a bit, enough of a jolt to help you look at the familiar as strange. Maybe you look at your life and wonder if you’re on the path you want to walk. There is no shame in deciding that the “dream job” isn’t actually for you after your international volunteer project. It takes smarts to pause and look at your goals and it takes strength to change your life. Maybe volunteering gave you a little push to do just that.
- Consider signing up for a service year in your home country. If you live in the USA, there are great service year options, including AmeriCorps. Serve in a city or the countryside, in Alaska or New Orleans. Work in issues of affordable housing or rural development. These service years are for volunteers, but they pay a small stipend and often provide services like career advice.
- Volunteer again—but this time for longer! Want to keep volunteering abroad, this time digging into a place or a project for awhile? There are tons of opportunities! The most famous one for US citizens is Peace Corps, but there are many other lengthy volunteer options. Volunteering for 6 months to 2 years is a very different experience from shorter term volunteering and can teach you in different ways. You learn perseverance when the going gets tough and you aren’t going anywhere.
- Get a masters? If you already have your undergraduate degree but volunteering spurred you on to learn more, make it official by answering the question of “What to do after volunteering abroad?” with a master’s degree. Many careers now require a master’s to move up from entry level positions, and while you probably shouldn’t go into massive debt, it’s a good investment. And what a great way to dig into the complex issues you’ve faced in volunteering! There are many fantastic international development masters programs out there that can give you the context and tools to grapple with what you experienced in volunteering.
Now that you know what to do after volunteering abroad, get out there and get this new chapter started!
Volunteering can change our perspective, on the world and on ourselves. It might have shaken some of your beliefs or perhaps strengthened them. Now that you’ve taken the time to reflect and decide on your next step, get out there and get this new chapter started!