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The First Timer's Guide to Volunteering Abroad

Woman with African Kids

You’ve got your hiking shoes packed, your idealistic world-changing goals in order, and you’re ready to go be the best volunteer the world has ever seen! Except for one small issue: you’ve never actually done anything like this before.

Don’t panic just yet, though. There’s a first time for everything –- paying rent, successfully using a corkscrew, learning about the infield fly rule – and just because you’ve never done something before doesn’t mean you’ll be anything less than great at it, despite what all those “at least 3 years of relevant experience” job listings want you to think. Yes, embarking on an inter-continental volunteering jaunt is a bit different than, say, learning to make homemade pasta sauce, but with a little bit of planning and some confidence, you can be just as ready as that girl who’s almost finished her goal of volunteering on every continent.

Getting Started

Maybe you already know exactly where you want to go and what you want to do. If so, congratulations; please skip to the end of this article, do not pass Go (for all you Monopoly fiends out there), and stop making the rest of us feel inadequate, thanks. If, like most normal humans, you have a vague sense of something you’d like to do, then you’re right where you should be. Before anything else, it’s helpful to think about these three main questions during the research stage:

Why do I want to volunteer abroad?

Offering your services in another country is a bit different than helping out at your local neighborhood animal shelter. Both are great ways to pitch in and get connected to a community, but one requires a bit more investment of both time and money than the other. Think about your motives for going abroad, sit down, and take a serious look at your financial or work situation, and make sure you feel that your reasons justify any sacrifices you’ll have to make in order to go.

Volunteering at a job you don’t care about, though, is a waste of your time and the organization’s, since it’s hard to commit fully to something that doesn’t interest you.

Where do I want to go?

You could throw a dart at a map of the world and there would probably be an organization there that would be happy to have you as a volunteer, but you might not necessarily be thrilled to be there. If you’re going to be spending a significant amount of time somewhere, especially in an environment that may be challenging with minimal financial compensation, it’s worth considering which places might make such a decision feel worthwhile and even appealing.

What do I want to do?

Depending on your interests, this may take priority over question #2. There are tons of activities that fall under the umbrella of “volunteering” –- everything from clearing hiking trails to digging wells to professional development or working for women's rights.

Having a job that doesn’t interest you is one thing, because at least there’s still a paycheck. Volunteering at a job you don’t care about, though, is a waste of your time and the organization’s, since it’s hard to commit fully to something that doesn’t interest you. Before you set off, make sure you’ve found a gig that you’re truly passionate about, so that it doesn’t feel so much like, well, working for free.

Once you’ve narrowed down those criteria, it’s time to start making your idea a reality!

Before You Go

The hardest part is over, but your work has just begun. There are quite a few tasks to take care of and things to consider before you’re ready to start printing boarding passes.

Do your homework

Just like you wouldn’t go on a blind date without at least Googling the other person, you don’t want to walk into a volunteer situation –- especially one that’s quite far from home –- without having a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into.

If you’ve made the big commitment to volunteer abroad, you’ve hopefully already started this step, but if you haven’t, it’s not too late! Having your country and field of interest clarified helps this process significantly, because you’ll get much better results searching for, say, “women’s health volunteer projects in Nicaragua” than for simply “volunteer programs.”

Find the programs and organizations that seem to align most with your interests, and do some research on them. See if there are alumni reviews for the programs (like on Go Overseas...) or, even better, if you can get in touch with someone who has previously volunteered there, to get an experienced perspective. This is easier if you’re looking at an established volunteer program, versus volunteering abroad without an organization (although that has plenty of benefits, too!) but make sure you at least find out a little about the history, mission, work and background of any organization, program or not, before you commit to working for them.

Inspirational quote volunteering abroad
Get checked out (by a doctor...)

Some international programs will advise you about required vaccines or other health concerns in your region, but it never hurts to make sure you’re taking proper precautions. Even if you feel fantastic, you should try to schedule a regular medical check-up before you leave, to make sure everything’s in working order, and get any prescriptions for medications your doctor thinks you might need while there.

If you can’t make an appointment with your regular medical professional, many hospitals and medical centers also have travel clinics that can offer advice and vaccinations for travelers. It’s also worth taking a look at the CDC’s travel site to see if there are any specific health concerns or required vaccinations in the place you’re headed.

Of course, if you do take regular (or even not-so-regular) medication, make absolutely sure you have enough on hand before you leave. Sometimes it’s possible to buy essentially the same medications over the counter in other countries, but if you’re not sure or you don’t want to run the risk of mixing up your meds, be on the safe side and stock up before you go.

Save up

If you’ve committed to volunteer abroad, you’re probably already aware that “volunteering” means “not getting paid.” That’s basically the job description, but sometimes we forget to connect the dots to the second part, something like “but still in need of money for street food, bottled water, weekend trips, extra pens, beer, sunscreen, or whatever else you spend your spare change on.”

Even if room and board is part of your deal, you will almost certainly still want some extra cash on hand for special occasions.

Unless you have magically figured out the secret to a totally self-sustaining life (in which case you should probably be marketing that instead), you are going to need money while you’re there. Even if room and board is part of your deal, you will almost certainly still want some extra cash on hand for special occasions, so try to budget accordingly, optimize a few money saving tips before you go and make sure you take enough with you to avoid any financial panic interfering with your time. If you’re planning far enough in advance, you should have plenty of time to figure out a few strategies for saving or raising money to ensure you won’t be living paycheck-to-nonexistent-paycheck.

Pack wisely

Whether they’ve been abroad dozens of times or their passport hasn’t even been opened yet, packing is often one of the biggest challenges for travelers. If you’ve already done research about where you’re going to be, you should at least have some idea of the weather you’ll be dressing for. As far as appropriate clothing is concerned, “appropriate” can vary wildly, depending on the nature of your work –- you probably wouldn’t bring the same clothing for volunteering at a secondary school as you do for shearing sheep on a farm, so think about where you’ll be and what you think you’ll actually use, rather than what you think you might need.

The packing conundrum is also a perfect issue to discuss with previous volunteers while you prepare to volunteer abroad, if you have a chance; if not, your host organization may be able to offer some guidance. Remember that you may not have a lot of space for your personal items, so think about multi-use objects and try to emotionally detach yourself, at least a little, from your absolute favorite pair of kicks.

As a volunteer, you may also be able to contribute more than your time –- if you’ve been doing fundraising for supplies prior to heading out, or you just want to bring something for your hosts, factor those items into your packing scheme.

Arrange your social calendar

It seems like the least important thing in the world when you’re in the midst of your Taz-like whirlwind of preparations, but there are people at home that will want to hear about how (and what) you’re doing. Your immediate family and closest friends may seem like a given, but you probably have a wider audience than you imagine, and it can become a disproportionate source of stress when you feel like you spend half your free time on Skype, or trying to figure out when to Skype, or feeling guilty that you missed a Skype call, or so on.

Although you won’t truly know your schedule until you arrive (and even then it might not be totally clear), it’s not a bad idea to try to establish some ground rules or strategies for communication before you go, so it doesn’t become something you have to deal with down the road. Set a standard time to Skype, create a mass email list, write a blog – do whatever seems best for you, in a way that will give you time to enjoy where you are without shutting out all the people that are emotionally there with you.

While Volunteering

You made it, yellow fever vaccines and all! Getting off the plane is just the first step, though – you’ve still got a whole volunteering stint to get through! It’s likely that most of your plans and preconceptions will go out the window during the first 48 hours, but try to keep some of these tips in mind to get the most out of your experience.

Be okay with making mistakes

There’s a lot of pressure when starting anything new, and at first you may feel like you’re doing everything wrong, frustrated by language barriers or at a loss as to how to deal with your new environment. No matter how many times you remind yourself that this is normal, it doesn’t make the adjustment period any easier, but you can at least try to be understanding of yourself. You may not know how to tag a turtle or plan and execute a perfect lesson plan on your first day (or even your last) – and that’s okay. As a volunteer, the idea is that you’re there to help your host organization, so your presence is already a step in the right direction, as long as you behave yourself.

We all have to do things wrong before we can do them right, so you might as well enjoy the learning experience.

Depending on how much experience your hosts have with volunteers, they may or may not have a plan in place for training you (although, of course, a training component of your volunteer program is ideal). In the very likely scenario that they do not, remember that everyone knows you’re new. People will not think you’re stupid if you ask for help. In fact, asking is often the only way to get things done. We all have to do things wrong before we can do them right, so you might as well enjoy the learning experience.

Forget the job description

Building on the last idea, remember that your goal as an international volunteer should be to help, not just to add a cool international experience to your resume. Often, the job description doesn’t align exactly with what you really end up doing -– sometimes, you may arrive only to find that the position has changed completely and you’re expected to do something entirely different. This can be a hard adjustment, especially when you’ve just landed, but it’s helpful to keep reminding yourself that your role is to fill the organization’s needs to the best of your abilities, even if the job may not play to what you feel are your strengths. That’s the great thing about being challenged –- you may find talents and skills you never even knew you had, or foster ones you’ve always wanted!

Document!
Photographer in Japan

Whether it’s through photos, blogging, painting, old-fashioned journaling, honing your (legal) street art skills, or whatever other means you choose, make sure you’re recording some of your experience. Time can fly by when you’re working hard and learning 24/7, but you don’t want to let the important moments slip away.

Going abroad for the first time can be a life-changing experience in countless ways, but those changes don’t always come easy, and it’s often helpful to have a space or venue to express any fears, frustrations and questions you may have. The same goes for positive aspects –- you wouldn’t want to forget that amazing waterfall you stumbled upon in the middle of the woods, or the night you finally learned how to dance salsa, or the first mother who came to the new clinic you helped build. Finding a way to preserve memories is important for your own ability to process your experience, and it gives you something to show anyone back at home who asks “So, what is it like?”

Take time to explore

You may be eager to jump right into things when you arrive – and there’s nothing wrong with that, since your volunteer placement is the reason you came, after all. If you’re working in a field or with an organization you feel passionate about, it might seem like you can eat, sleep and breathe your work and nothing else, but it’s important to take a little to look around you, whether it’s a weekend trip to a different part of the country or just a few hours walking around by yourself. There’s more to an international experience that just staying put in one place, and exploring the country and meeting new people can help you gain a greater understanding of the place and culture that may even aid you in the work you’re doing.

Learn more about your organization

Again, you hopefully already have a fairly solid idea of whom you’re working with, but the realities on the field are often very different from what the website says. The organization’s promotional information may showcase its growth over a decade, but it can’t explain the inspiring positive energy that seems to emanate from your new director, or demonstrate how hard your co-workers fight for something they believe in. Your host organization is no doubt doing good work, but good work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Learning more about the history and reach of your organization, or talking to other employees and volunteers about why they chose to join, can give you a much deeper sense of why the work you’re doing is important, and why it matters there, and how you -- yes you -- are helping to make it happen

After You Return

Welcome home! Now what?

Practice your two-minute story

One of the biggest challenges facing people returning from an extended period of time abroad is the dreaded reverse culture shock, but a less-acknowledged issue is the difficulty of responding to questions about your experience. People often won’t know what to ask, so you’ll end up trying to answer questions like “What’s [country] like?” or “Did you like it?” You’re struggling to keep your answers to under an hour each, while people lose interest after about 30 seconds.

It can be discouraging to come to terms with the fact that many people don’t really want to hear about every minute detail of your world-changing experience abroad, but it’s the reality. Instead of trying to fit three months into three minutes, try to focus: talk about your organization, your favorite thing about being there, your most hilarious student, your best friend, the worst thing you ate. Pick a story that illustrates some of your experience, and tell that story. For most people, the two-minute elevator pitch will be enough –- and if they want to know more, they will ask!

Also, don't forget to figure out how you'll put your volunteer abroad experience on a resume or talk about it in a job interview. Being able to phrase it right will show potential employers that you didn't just "have a good time" abroad, but developed applicable skills that will be of interest to them.

Stay connected

It’s hard not to feel a sense of disconnect as your experience begins to fade behind you. You might already be researching the cheapest flights to get you back there as soon as possible, but if you’re planning on staying in your home country at least for the immediate future, you’ll have to take a bit more responsibility for maintaining contact with your friends, co-workers, or students from your time volunteering. You'll have to stay involved after returning home from volunteering abroad.

Staying in touch with your host organization is also important from a sustainability perspective, especially if you were one of their first volunteers.

Depending on technological constraints, you might be able to Skype with people there every so often, or work on fundraising or another project to benefit your former place of work. If staying in direct contact isn’t an option, think about other ways to keep that experience in your life: you could mentor another future volunteer, find a community group that supports like-minded projects, or even just look for a restaurant that serves your favorite meal from that country. Whatever method you choose, try to see your experience volunteering abroad as a step between where you were and where you’re going, not just an isolated period of time that has no relation with any other part of your life.

Staying in touch with your host organization is also important from a sustainability perspective, especially if you were one of their first volunteers. Most places don’t want their volunteers to see the time spent there as just a vacation –- even if you won’t be helping them directly in the future, it never hurts to check in and see what they’re up to and let them know you’re still thinking about them. Chances are the experience had an impact on your life, and it can be gratifying for your hosts to see that. Who knows, maybe you’ll even be able to help them again in some way in the future.

There’s no way to predict exactly what your experience will be as a volunteer abroad, but that’s part of the beauty of beginning something new. No matter where you go or what you end up doing, you’re going to have an experience that will change the way you see the world around you –- and maybe even the way you see yourself. Welcome to the volunteers’ club!

Photo Credits: Christoph Rupprecht, Feed My Starving Children and Photographer in Japan.
Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.