So you want to volunteer abroad, but can only swing a week-long stint. First of all, congratulations! You are about to embark on potentially the most stimulating, life-changing one week volunteer abroad experience of your life. While it’s no secret that longer-duration programs generally give way to a likewise deeper impact and volunteer experience, they also reflect a much more costly investment. There are countless reasons why one may not be able to afford the time or financial commitment required to participate in an extended trip.
Luckily, many volunteer abroad programs offer much shorter duration options, because, who can’t take a week off from their work or studies to squeeze in some seriously meaningful travel? But, before running off to spay strays in Guatemala or support conservation efforts in New Zealand, it is important to start by acknowledging the pros and cons of your upcoming trip, and then take the necessary steps to maximize your one week volunteer experience.
WEIGHING THE PROS AND CONS
Before pulling the trigger on a program registration, consider thoughtfully what you will gain from this short-term volunteer experience abroad (and what you’ll sacrifice).
Most of the pros of a week-long volunteer abroad trip are pretty obvious, and are likely the reasons you are reading this in the first place. Just because you are passionate and earnest in your desire to travel abroad in a meaningful way, does not mean you should feel the need to sacrifice your current career or ambitions to do so. Short-term volunteer abroad trips are increasingly popular, and it is easy to sum up why by simply saying it costs less:
- Smaller total program fees
- Less money spent living abroad
- Less time spent away from home
The cons are a little trickier. Some simply reflect the nature of a short-term stay and can only be embraced, while others, that may only seem like an afterthought or an inevitable part of the experience, are nevertheless important to recognize and account for:
- Less time to embrace and immerse oneself in the work, relationships, and culture
- The cost of flights may outweigh the cost of your actual time abroad
- Less room for error (ex. jetlag, illness, setbacks)
- You will likely wish you could stay longer
HOW TO BOOST YOUR SHORT TERM VOLUNTEER ABROAD TRIP
Now that everything is on the table, it’s time to get down to it! Here are five tips for maximizing your week-long volunteer abroad experience:
1. Do the leg work - assume that your job starts before your journey ever does.
One week goes by awfully fast. The last thing you want is to start off behind before even beginning and have to spend the rest of the week feeling like you are playing catch-up. So do your research, plan accordingly, and take care of any possible details in the weeks leading up to your departure.
Research. Research your program provider, your destination of choice, and the local culture and customs. If you already get the gist of the bigger picture, why the work is so important and what makes it successful, you will feel more confident from the get go and be more apt to jump right in and get to work. Likewise, if you familiarize yourself with your destination, you will not only pack and prepare more appropriately, but you will automatically appreciate more of what makes it unique. Finally, figure out what the dominantly spoken language is, understand the do’s and don’t’s of the culture, and collect any information you can find that might affect your during your time abroad.
Prepare. Once you have collected as much information as you can, organize it in a useful way. Take what you have discovered to prepare for your week-long stint. Learn a few sentences of the local lingo to allow quicker communication and fast-track relationship building. If you discover shorts and sleeveless shirts are strongly frowned upon, leave them behind. If you discover you will be venturing abroad during your destination’s wet season, bring along a rain jacket.
Plan. Make a tentative game plan. If you know you have a tendency to get motion or sea sick, react to new foods, or get lost walking a straight line, bring dramamine, tums, and consider downloading an offline map. Basically, do all the hard work necessary to plan for what’s ahead as best as you can so that while you are there you can simply take it all in, knowing you did all you could, and make the most of whatever happens from then on out.
You don’t want to be kicking yourself over what you wish you had learned, brought, or known ahead of time.
2. Set yourself up for success - Counteract the cons.
You already understand the cons of week-long volunteering abroad. However, recognizing them is only half the battle. The other half is actively taking them into account when making decisions about the work, location, and time table of your trip.
Choose sustainable work. Oftentimes, it can take a few days to warm up to and fully feel confident in your volunteer abroad placement, especially when doing work that traditionally takes some time to build upon, so consider a program with long-term, sustainable goals that can be benefitted equally regardless of the duration of a volunteer’s stay. Opting for labor-focused efforts, like construction or reforestation, or less-systematic versions of a particular area of interest, like childcare instead of teaching, are just a few ways to choose a project that easily allows new volunteers to pick up exactly where the last ones left off and still visibly see the difference they make during their stay.
Be flight savvy. One factor one-weekers sometimes forget to take into account when budgeting for their volunteer abroad stint is the cost of flights. Especially in shorter-term commitments, flight costs can often equal or even surpass the cost of the program itself. Before committing to a volunteer program in the outback of Australia, consider a similar program in Central America instead. You can save significant amounts of money by simply flying to a nearer and less expensive destination.
Say “jet lag schmet lag”. Another con that can affect volunteers more significantly the further they venture is jet lag. It is a very real thing. Again, set yourself up to feel the best you possibly can by not having to factor in a full day (or more) to get your body synched with your new week-long home. Luckily, the journey going west generally produces less jet lag than the eastward trip home. However, if you do find yourself “going the distance” so to speak, utilize these tricks to combat your conflicting circadian rhythms:
- Leading up to your departure, gradually alter your sleep schedule to conform more closely to your destination time-zone
- Schedule a flight that arrives during daylight to discourage the urge to fall asleep at inappropriate times
- Get a solid night’s sleep before you depart, stay hydrated, and act (eat & sleep) as if you were already there right from the get-go
Schedule a cushion. Just because your volunteer program lasts for one week, doesn’t mean your trip has to be strictly limited to the same time frame. If possible, allow yourself a day or two at the beginning or end of your trip to adjust and process. If you do get sick the first time you try Cuy Chactao (fried guinea pig) while volunteering in Peru or simply cannot get the hang of the bus system your first go-around, at least you will have a spare day to spend sick in bed or aimlessly meandering without having to worry about missing orientation. Similarly, if you never got a chance to check out the peak, ruins, or rainforest that was calling your name all week, it is nice to have a free day at the end to fit in things you might otherwise miss.
3. Go above and beyond - be your biggest and best self.
When is the last time you took less than a week to do anything? To make new friends, to learn new skills, to feel comfortable in a new situation? In order to make the most of your week volunteering abroad, act as if all your best skills and characteristics are suddenly on steroids.
Say yes. Before you even step foot off the plane, decide you are going to be a “yes” person (assuming you are taking necessary safety precautions). Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. Maybe surfing was something you never felt super strongly about trying, but if you are saving sea turtles on the coast of Costa Rica and someone asks if you’d like to try, say yes.
Just do it. Likewise, don’t be afraid to go out there and make things happen. Instead of waiting for the women in your social service organization to come talk to you, reach out to them. Focus on being your most confident, friendly, and adventurous self, and then see where it takes you.
4. Dance in the rain - stay positive.
While you may literally have the chance to dance in the rain, no matter what the situation is, decide ahead of time that you will make the most of it. It can be a bit of a downer if it happens to rain more days than not or you don’t see an elephant your first day on a conservation project in Thailand, but there’s not much sense in letting it dampen your spirits!
Embrace a bright perspective. It might be surprising how easy it is to take things as they come while volunteering abroad for a week. It’s almost like the adrenaline of adventure has a euphoric effect. The fact that there is literally nothing more interesting or important that you could be doing at any given moment (would you really rather be spending your Tuesday catching up on laundry?) helps make even minor setbacks seem like nothing more than an exciting twist.
Collect stories. Despite the above phenomenon, sometimes the only good thing to come out of a not-ideal situation, is the story you get to tell once it’s over. So if you find yourself stuck on a hot, crowded bus that seems to actively seek out potholes, sitting next to a friendly older gentleman intent on conversing despite the very clear language barrier on your way to your remote beach conservation placement - just go with it.
5. Stop and smell the roses - take time to take it all in.
It will be a whirlwind week of exciting and profound activities, thoughts, feelings, and realizations. Figure out a strategy that works for you to process it all. It’s easy to get caught up in go-go-going all day long, but it would be a shame to look back at the end of the week and hardly remember the details amid the blurred mix of sites and emotions.
Let it sink in. After spending so much time preparing, it can take some time to sink in the fact that you actually made it. At some point during the first day, take time to pause, close your eyes, breathe deeply, recognize that your frantic planning phase is behind you, and feel grateful for the incredible opportunity you have in front of you.
Write it down. There are so many details, the way the kids look at you, the impressive amount of mosquitos, your first taste of gallo pinto, the exact color of the volcanic sand, that are easy to forget with each new experience. Keeping a journal, blog, or other form of documentation will help remind you all you did, how you felt, and thoughts you had each day.
Pause for pictures. It is true that pictures never do sites and experiences justice. Nevertheless, take them. When you want to remember a moment, or explain exactly how tiny your bunk bed was or how far the beach stretched, you will be glad you have something tangible to hold onto and show others of the incredible time you had volunteering abroad.
While a week may not seem like much time to squeeze in short term volunteer work, if you make the effort to make it count, I can vouch that it will likely be the best decision of your life (and have a positive impact on the communities you’re entering, too). Besides, what better things do you have to do besides saving the world that can’t wait a week?!