Never Underestimate This International Volunteer Quality

by Published

A woman driving a water buffalo

Do you have what it takes to be a volunteer abroad

We all have a literal (...and figurative...) hand or two we can offer to help others, so is that all that’s needed to be an effective volunteer - a willingness and a physical presence?

I’m sure most of you will agree that it’s not that simple.

Generally, international volunteers have two basic qualities that get the process started: (1) Desire – that itch you get to put forth your time and energy into a project across the world with no financial gain in return. (2) Drive – the fact that you don’t just talk about your desire, you actually put it into action.

And once you take that leap and you commit to an international volunteer program abroad, there’s a handful of ideal qualities to help you be successful: flexibility, patience, open-mindedness, motivation, and energy/enthusiasm are a few that come to mind.

But what’s the secret of stand out volunteers? Above all, there exists a quality that sets some volunteers apart from the rest; a quality that allows you to both get and give the absolute most during your volunteer trip; a quality that creates a buzz around the office because every staff member wants you by their side, helping them eradicate poverty, educate communities, or accomplish whatever goal they’ve set out for themselves.

It is, simply, self-awareness.

Now you might be saying, “SIMPLY!?” (as self-awareness is no easy feat to conquer). Being self-aware is an ongoing process; you’re never going to have it perfect. I say “simply” because you don’t have to have a certain background or set of experiences to gain self-awareness. You don’t need to have a resume full of leadership positions or a long-list of countries you’ve checked off (traveling does have that perk of boosting self-awareness for some people, but it’s not the only way).

You don’t even always have to understand what you’re becoming aware of! Recognizing YOU as an individual, and how you relate to and work within the world around you, is actually a pretty sweet quality for many areas of life. Here are the positive effects self-awareness will have on your international volunteer experience. 

1. You recognize the scope of your impact, and not just on the project.

This is huge. Whether you are volunteering with kids, adults, or the environment, you will have an impact one way or the other. Your impact extends beyond your actions; it also includes your words, choices, and attitude towards something. You can impact the staff, your co-volunteers, or the project itself. 


What will help in your relations with everyone/thing is understanding how you are having an impact…is it positive? Negative? A mix in between? Self-awareness allows you to recognize when that not-so-quiet grumble you just made about tomorrow’s schedule set a negative tone for the group, or worse, made you and your co-volunteers seem entitled and whiny to the organization’s leaders. 

It forces you to take responsibility for yourself and not take your words or actions for granted. Instead of “me-first” thinking, you think more consciously about the whole. You will add much more to your project by acknowledging the expectations you created, and focusing on the expectations of what/who you are there for in the first place.

When your work is complete, you will also be able to see the impact you had on the project, large or small! Let it be seeing an improvement in one child you’ve been working with, or providing clean water to an entire community, you’ll recognize the goodness that took place and the positive ripple effects that will continue. 

2. You have a purpose.

You are aware of your intention for volunteering abroad. Even if your intention to volunteer abroad is to figure out your purpose, you acknowledge that, and work purposefully towards it. You didn’t just blindly pick a country and a site, you looked at what you wanted out of this trip and what you are able to give. You aren’t just showing up on your first day saying, “OK, here I am - what do you want me to do?” You talk about your intentions and ask, under this context, how you can best be utilized for the project. This not only gives you direction for your volunteer trip, it gives your site leader direction and can more quickly get you into the action of the work. 

Knowing your purpose also makes you more resilient in the face of adversary. When the unexpected happens with your project or you aren’t connecting with who you are working with, keeping your purpose in view motivates you to endure, try new techniques, and maybe even go out of your comfort zone to find success.

This resiliency also extends to the nay-sayers (and there will always be nay-sayers). Those who question why you would volunteer in that country, who think your time would be better spent doing something else… or even those near your project site that question how you, an outsider, could actually do something to help. When you have a purpose and understand why you have chosen to volunteer abroad in that exact location, these comments can’t sway you. And while you could respond, you know you don’t have to.

Volunteers with kids preparing their corns

3. You know your strengths and weaknesses, and acknowledge others’.

There’s much to be said about understanding how you best “fit” into different projects. Maybe you are a natural leader and will excel in implementation, or maybe you’re better at analyzing information and situations to improve them. Maybe you have a hard time envisioning the big picture, but you have an amazing way of communicating and relating to others. 

Knowing your strengths allows you to choose a role you will be most effective in as well as find enjoyment in doing. Acknowledging your weaknesses enables you to be honest when a task assigned to you is not in your skillset or when you need more support to complete it. On the same hand, if you want to improve in your “weak” areas, you can speak up and ask to do so.

People can tell when you’re aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. It instills trust and reassurance in the people depending on you. Also, being able to recognize the strengths and weaknesses in others enables you to bring out the best in the people you are working with and helps you know how to most effectively work beside them. That type of teamwork and awareness is beneficial to all, especially the benefactors of the volunteer work you’re doing.

4. You know your boundaries.

Being an international volunteer is a great time to try new things, push the limits, and get the most out of experiences. It’s also a time you could wear yourself out, push the limits a little too far, or put yourself in uncomfortable situations. While stepping outside of your comfort zone can open your eyes to a whole new world, knowing your boundaries enables you step out responsibly.

Especially when organizations heavily rely on volunteers, there is always something more to be done and time you can give. “Burn-out” is a term commonly heard in NGO work. But if you know your boundaries, you’re perfectly comfortable taking the time to rest and recharge, using a day-off if your body is too tired, or doing whatever you need to do in order to maintain your health and wellbeing while giving your best self to the project. 

You can also trust yourself when a task or environment feels too risky or you’d rather not be someplace alone as a volunteer. You are able to express your limits, which will benefit both you and the director assigning your tasks. Communication, baby!

Volunteering with kids

5. You are in the driver’s seat of your experience.

Most importantly, your self awareness allows you to understand that you are in control of your entire volunteer experience. You make choices every day and you know that these choices affect your experience. 

You can choose to react strongly to a negative situation, or you can choose to recognize your internal reaction and respond in a more intentional way. You can choose to give up on a challenge that seems too hard to overcome, or you can choose to look it at as an opportunity to grow. You can choose to take that extended weekend trip with the new friends you’ve made, or you can choose to be back on Monday to honor the commitment you’ve made to your placement.

Your choices have consequences, and since you are aware of your purpose, your impact, your boundaries, etc…you make choices that are in accordance with YOU, your intentions, and the people of the communities you are here to serve.

It’s easy to blame others for your experience. You can blame your placement for not providing you with enough work to do, you can blame your fellow volunteers for not being a team, you can blame your annoying life situations back home for forcing you to think moving somewhere without electricity was a good alternative (you get the picture). At the end of the day, you’re in charge of how you relate to and act within your environment. As cliché as it sounds, you’re in charge of taking your frown and turning it into a smile. A self-aware person understands this and is able to turn any experience into a positive experience. 

No matter where you volunteer abroad, your ability to be self-aware and take actions accordingly will enhance your trip, not only for yourself, for but for the project and people around you.