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18 Things I Wish I'd Done Differently While Volunteering Abroad

american volunteers in ghana

After graduating college, I decided I wanted to volunteer abroad. I finished up my summer job, spent a month at home getting my life in order and hopped on a plane to Ghana.

In many ways, I had an incredible volunteer experience – going solo made me more independent, working at a hospital gave me a taste of healthcare in the developing world and partnering with a small NGO meant I knew exactly where my programs fees were going and who was benefitting. A number of the typical suggestions in regards to volunteering abroad I managed to cover: opting to do a homestay, keeping a journal, blogging my experiences, remaining involved in the organization after I left, etc.

In the three years since, I have volunteered in both the Philippines and Cambodia. I currently run an NGO in Cambodia that takes on long-term volunteers. Thus I’ve had the chance to reflect on my experiences in Ghana both as a veteran volunteer and as a director observing others' experiences. Here are a few things I wish I had done differently my first time volunteering abroad, broken up into three sections: 1) my preparation before volunteering abroad, 2) my time on the ground in Ghana, and 3) the way I continued living after. P.S.: Live and learn, but no regrets!

BEFORE VOLUNTEERING ABROAD

1. Checked out more program options

There are so many volunteer programs out there. I had two main requirements: I need a health focus and it needed to be cheap, cheap, cheap! When a friend found a small NGO in Ghana offering both, I applied, was accepted, and that was that. Looking back, I realize how lucky I am that things worked out well, as my lack of research could have really backfired. Volunteer programs organized by folks like IVHQ or UBELONG would've been extremely helpful in my transition to life abroad.

2. Considered volunteering without a program.

lindsay denny volunteering abroad

At the time, I hadn't even thought about trying to contact individual organizations. Financially it may have been more practical to volunteer without a program, as many of the smaller NGOs don't require a fee. Had I sat down and thought about what I really wanted to get out of the experience, specifically as a resume-builder, I could have targeted a few organizations.

3. Researched the region further.

I did some research before I left, but the spontaneity of my decision meant I had quite a few things to learn in my first month in-country. I could have made a bigger effort to learn about the tribe in the region, the government, the history, and the country's relationship with the US. While it’s difficult to know a culture until you experience it, reading up on cultural tips will help those first few weeks and keep the awkward situations to a minimum. Plus learning a few key phrases before getting off the plane is never a bad idea!

4. Looked into funding options.

I never crossed my mind that there would be funding opportunities for volunteering abroad. Even scholarships completely eluded me. Due to my last-minute planning, it's unlikely that I would have been able to score one, but with some foresight I could have saved money and afforded to stay longer or travel after. Alternatively, I could have raised funds myself or considered crowdfunding options. Both options would have made me clearly define my objectives and be smarter with my money.

5. Spoken with previous volunteers.

Part of my own arrogance that I could handle whatever came at me meant that I didn't think speaking with past volunteers was necessary. But there were so many small details that I had never imagined until actually living in a whole new environment. From what to pack (and leave behind!) to what to expect on my first day, I could have been a lot more prepared. In addition to speaking with volunteers, reading others’ experiences volunteering abroad is a great way to get an idea of what you’re in for!

WHILE VOLUNTEERING ABROAD

6. Spent time with more locals.

In my first month in Ghana, I didn't have many friends. I would go out with my program director or a few Ghanaians who ran a partner NGO. As time passed, I grew closer to a few of the other volunteers who I could more easily relate to. By the time I left, I had really only gotten to know my host family, a few neighbors and my co-workers. While it was more comfortable to spend time with Westerners, I wish I had put myself out there further and made more Ghanaian friends.

lindsay denny and her new friends in ghana

7. Found a mentor.

Volunteering in a developing country can be life changing. It takes a lot out of you to process, reflect and understand what you are seeing. Finding a mentor, whether (s)he is a local or an expat, can help guide you through the experience. While it's preferable to find someone in-country, this isn't always feasible. A virtual mentor from home acting as a non-judgmental outlet for your thoughts will help you make sense of what you experience and how to fully benefit from volunteering abroad.

8. Brought more books.

I lived in a fairly small town with few tourists and there wasn’t a shop selling popular Western novels. I hadn't thought to bring a book to exchange with other volunteers. When you have no television, no internet, no computer and no hoppin’ nightlife, it is amazing how much free time you have to read. Though if you invest in a Kindle and have access to WiFi, Amazon will become your new best friend.

9. Tried more local cuisine.

Ghana isn't exactly known for its culinary excellence. That being said however, they have some awesome dishes if you're willing to be adventurous. And they have a completely different way of preparing food. I wish I had been more open to the food and especially that I had taken the time to learn from my host mother how to make their staple food, fufu. It may not be what you’re used to, but isn’t that the point??

10. Been more understanding of other volunteers.

As a foreigner, you are always acutely aware of the local culture, yet you tend to forget that many volunteers are also from various parts of the world. A German woman arrived just as I did and we lived at the same homestay. She was twice my age and from a very different culture, so we didn’t exactly hit it off. She had a negative outlook that I didn't enjoy being around. What I failed to realize was that she was probably having difficult time transitioning and my frustration with her only made it worse. I could have been less severe, helping her embrace the experience rather than making it more miserable.

goofy volunteers with african kids

11. Been OK with seeing less.

As this was my first experience in Africa, I was revved up to see anything and everything. I would have gotten more out of the experience if I had been willing to limit the majority of my exploration to the province I lived in. Spending more time with the people rather than rushing to get in as much sightseeing in as possible would have allowed me to appreciate the subtleties of the country that tourists often miss - one of the best parts of volunteering abroad.

12. Not kept a countdown.

For the first half of the experience, I was pretty homesick. At one point I drew up a calendar in my journal and would cross the days off until my flight home. All this seemed to do was exacerbate my homesickness. When I finally stopped checking the days and actually started living in the moment, the homesickness faded and my love for Ghana grew exponentially.

13. Spent less time at the internet café.

A) It was relatively expensive. B) At the height of my homesickness following what each of my friends was doing on Facebook only made things harder. C) It's nice to be able to unplug and really let yourself fall into a slower-paced lifestyle. Not much can beat sitting on a stoop at night, listening to crickets and chatting with friends and neighbors.

14. Refrained from making promises I couldn't keep.

Inevitably as a volunteer, locals and expats will ask you when you plan to come back. This was an especially difficult question coming from the orphans we worked with. I told them I would come back as soon as I could, but life has gotten in the way. While I still hope to return, it would be have been more prudent to formulate a response that I could realistically follow through with.

15. Stayed longer!

I remember booking the trip thinking 2 months sounded like an eternity. In actuality, it was not nearly enough time, especially given that it took me a month to adjust. By the time I was finally feeling comfortable, it was practically time to leave! Plus when going onto grad school for global health, I would have been better prepared with more long-term international experience.

AFTER VOLUNTEERING ABROAD

16. Found people in my community with similar experiences.

little ghanaian boys on the beach

Reverse culture shock tends to be more difficult for me than the original adjustment. Coming back to the US, I couldn't convey my experiences to my family and friends. Few people I knew had spent extended periods of time in the developing world and even fewer had gone as more than a tourist.

As I struggled to transition back into a life out of college and living with my parents, it would have been comforting to speak with those who could relate. This may not be feasible in your community, so try looking into online communities where you can connect and discuss your experiences.

17. Stepped back into my life at home.

Don't get me wrong, I needed some time to reflect and transition back into life in the States. But sitting around my parents’ house, I found myself in limbo, neither back into my life in California nor part of my life in Ghana. When I finally did get a job 6 weeks after my return, it was even harder to get back into that old life than had I made the effort initially. The transition is awkward, but coming at your old life with a new perspective may just provide the insight that you need.

18. Volunteered at home.

There's something exciting and exotic about volunteering abroad. So much so we often forget that our own country and people need our help as well. Whether it's an animal shelter, a walk for cancer or a retirement home, there are literally hundreds of opportunities to give back to your own community. Finding a cause to pour your energy into can also ease the transition.

Had I sat down and thought about what I really wanted to get out of the experience, specifically as a resume-builder, I could have targeted a few organizations.

There is no right or wrong way to volunteer abroad, and everyone's experience differs. I had a great time but overall I wish I had done more research, been more outgoing and adventurous, and pushed myself to be involved after returning home. These tips for volunteering abroad are especially geared for newbies to the club. Have you volunteered abroad? What advice would you add to this list for those those volunteering abroad for the first time?

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Lindsay Denny

Having studied abroad in Florence in college, Lindsay caught the travel bug. During a year off, she volunteered at in a hospital in Ghana and traveled to Argentina. She also spent 6 months studying and interning in the Philippines in grad school. She now lives in Cambodia, running an NGO and exploring Southeast Asia.