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Guide to Coming Home After Volunteering Abroad

Volunteers in Haiti

You've packed your bags full of keepsakes, said your goodbyes, and begrudgingly stepped onto a plane home. Who knew that two months volunteering in Ghana could be so life-changing?! It was a trip of firsts: your first time in a developing country, first time taking bucket showers, first time really being on your own, first time being the only Westerner surrounded by another culture, first time living somewhere you didn't speak the language.

Use this guide as you navigate the transition back to life at home after volunteering abroad.

You are beyond excited to get back and see your family and friends. You want share this incredible experience with them! You've blogged, emailed and posted all your photos on Facebook. But nothing can beat reliving the whole thing with those you care about! Plus, lately you've been craving real cheese, good coffee, and a bowl of your favorite cereal.

As you wrap up your time abroad and head back to the motherland, there are some things you should think about. Everyone experiences the transition back home differently, however there are certain commonalities and stages of "reverse culture shock." Moreover, many returning volunteers find themselves reexamining their lives, the experience, and what it all meant. Use this guide as you navigate the transition back to life at home after volunteering abroad.

Saying Goodbyes in Your Host Country

Goodbyes are never easy. But they’re infinitely harder when you are leaving people who had a profound impact on your life in such a short period of time. Relationships, in all senses of the word, tend to be more intense abroad than they would be back at home. You’re in a foreign environment, experiencing life in a whole new way and sharing those experiences with volunteers, expats, and locals alike.

Volunteer hugging local in Ghana

After spending two months with the same four people in your volunteer abroad program, battling the daily struggles of not speaking the language or fully grasping the culture, it’s bizarre to think you may never see your fellow volunteers again. On the positive side, you’ve now got friends in all different parts of the world -- another excuse to travel! It’s not so much a goodbye, but as they say, “I’ll see you when you see me."

Leaving behind your local friends is another story. They walked you through life in their country, easing the process of assimilation. You come from very different worlds. You exchanged stories and helped one another appreciate cultural differences and misunderstandings. In all likelihood, they won't be able to come visit you in the US, as much as you both might want that. Seeing each other again is dependent on you returning to visit.

Keeping that in mind, don't make promises that you can't keep. If the idea of flying back in the near future is unrealistic, then don't say that you will. Keep it open-ended. Let them know how much their friendship has meant to you, find ways to communicate once you're gone, and leave it at that.

Preparing for Your Homecoming

A half-day bus into the capital city, a jam-packed train to the airport, and then a 20-hour, multi-layover flight. That's a lot of time to think and get your head around the fact that you’re returning home. There will be a lot of emotions to sort through, with mixed feelings about this volunteer experience coming to a close.

It's going to take some time to figure it all out. Don't feel like you need to understand exactly how you feeling before you land on the tarmac at JFK. What you should do is recognize that this experience has changed you. Be prepared to see your life back at home in a new light. It's OK that you don't know what all this means yet or how it will manifest itself. Just getting yourself ready to acknowledge and accept that things may be different is a healthy place to start.

Dealing with Reverse Culture Shock

One of the most difficult parts of returning to life in your home country is reverse culture shock. Also known as counter culture shock, this pseudo-syndrome refers to the experience of readjusting to life back at home after integrating to another culture, another way of life.

Stay aware of the things you find difficult to deal with or absurd, as they are often signs of a deeper change in your views of the world.

Malls suddenly seem overwhelming and full of unnecessary luxury goods. The price of pretty much everything makes your jaw drop. You cringe when your friends blow $100 on a night out on the town. You miss the slower pace, the two-hour lunch breaks, and the sense of community.

The good news is you will adjust back, just as you adjusted to life abroad. For some people it takes a few days, others a few weeks. Stay aware of the things you find difficult to deal with or absurd, as they are often signs of a deeper change in your views of the world. If you think malls have an excess of luxury items, the noteworthy part is that you are conscientious now of how little a majority of the world survives on.

Fitting Back into Your Old Life

Hristina and friend

Now that you’re home, it’s time for reunion after reunion with all the friends you've missed! They say they cannot wait to hear all your stories and to live vicariously through you. And you have been dying to fill them in on all the hilarious adventures. The trouble is, more often than not, they aren’t interested in a play-by-play of your time abroad. Especially if your friends have never been outside the US or Europe, they will have a hard time relating. Just think about your first few weeks volunteering – you couldn't have fathomed the life you stepped into. Some people find it difficult to put the experience into words and really do it justice. Journaling for yourself is a good place to start.

Find other ways to share your experience: speak at local schools, meet with prospect volunteers, or write for Go Overseas! You may not relive every juicy detail, but choosing a select, interested audience will give you a chance to pick apart your time abroad and highlight the main points.

Even more strange, you may find after spending time with your friends that you see them differently from before. You may come to realize that some are less informed about the world around them or just very caught up in their own social scene. This doesn't make them bad people or your friendship any less worthwhile. Remember that they have not had the experiences you have had (and vice versa) and their priorities and focus lie elsewhere. Take this opportunity to make additions to your circle of friends.

Seeking Out People Who’ve Had Similar Experiences

Your old friends who have supported you from the start will continue to be there for you even as you change. But as you deal with reverse culture shock and the "what does it all mean" phenomenon, it can be nice to have a few people in your life who understand what you're going through. Plus you’ll have someone to swap stories with!

A friend from high school you haven't spoken to you for years reaches out on Facebook after seeing your photos because s/he was in Kenya last year. The international student group on campus suddenly has a new appeal. These are great places to start! You’ll be surprised to find people on the periphery of your life that you now really connect with.

If this is unavailable to you, turn to the internet. Contact your volunteer program and find out if there are any alumni in your area. If you're on college campus, check out with the study abroad office as there is bound to be a few students who have volunteered. Search volunteer forums and post about your experiences.

Recognizing Changes in Yourself

Understanding how traveling and volunteering has changed you isn't instantaneous. While you were in the midst of it all, you didn't notice a transformation. But with a stark contrast in environment, those changes start to come out. It may take someone else pointing them out to you, and it may take time to figure it all out, but the impact is there.

Volunteering isn't about individual achievement... It's about helping those in need without expecting anything in return. It's about spreading kindness and generosity.

Again, journaling is a great way to process your thoughts. Talking through the experiences and its impact with those close to you can also help you sort through where you are now. For some people, volunteering changes their life trajectory. For others, they realize they can do more, making their current life even more fulfilling. Some may just be inspired enough to go after their dreams. And many, if not most, will be intrigued by the world and want to continue traveling and interacting with other cultures.

No matter how volunteering abroad affected you, being open and acutely aware of that will help you decide how you move forward with life. But sometimes figuring out how you were impacted relies on finding meaning in the experience itself.

Finding Meaning in Your Experience

Kids in Haiti

Perhaps you set off volunteering with this image of changing the world, making a lasting impact on the community. Looking back, you can now see how naïve that idea was, how complex the issues in your host country are. So then, what was your impact? Was it just you that benefitted from the experience?

It's important to remember you are part of a combined effort. Through the support of donors, the energy of volunteers and the commitment of local staff, your organization and/or program provider are working to improve the current situation in your host country.

Volunteering isn't about individual achievement, therefore when you are looking for meaning in your experience that is not what you will find. It's about helping those in need without expecting anything in return. It's about spreading kindness and generosity. It’s about encouraging acceptance and equality. Did you impact one person's life? Then your experience has meaning.

It also helps to think about a chain of events and the bigger picture. Say your volunteer project in Haiti taught English and sports to a group of young children. You, along with a slew of other volunteers and local staff, have kept the program running now for 10 years. Those students learn about foreign cultures, proper hygiene and sanitation, and the importance of an education. They are kept out of trouble and in school. Some of these young men and women go onto high school and eventually university. A select few become influential leaders in their community, working to help to elevate their country. You can't take credit for this whole chain of events, but you did have a very small part of making it happen.

The main purpose for volunteering abroad shouldn’t be to make you feel better about yourself while accruing a load of cute facebook photos. Further, it shouldn’t be the mission of the upper-middle class to “save” developing countries. We are working together to promote positive change and put everyone on an even playing field. Think back to your initial reasons for seeking out the experience and think about have those reasons changed. As you search for meaning, it’s OK to find that the feel-good aspect of volunteering meant something, but also recognize the other aspects of the experience, even those less savory.

Volunteering at Home

Volunteering abroad was exotic and exciting and life-changing. You were doing good, and it felt good. It was even pretty cool. Now that you're back home, that idea of giving back and doing good doesn't need to stop short. There are thousands of organizations and companies in the US that rely on volunteers to run their operations, like Amizade's volunteer project with Navajo and numerous projects via Volunteers for Peace. Go Overseas even has a list of a bunch of them right here on our Volunteer in the USA page.

Now that you're back home, that idea of giving back and doing good doesn't need to stop short.

Point is, no matter what you're passionate about, you can find a way to help improve your own country and stay involved with volunteering. It may not be quite as cool (though, we think it is...), but it’s still important and it will still make an impact. Plus you’ll meet some like-minded, interesting people while you're at it! There are ways to continuing giving back even without volunteering at all.

Using the Experience on Your Resume

Volunteering abroad helped you develop some pretty useful skills:
  • You had to learn to communicate with those of another culture and work as a team.
  • You had to be flexible with the ever-changing circumstances.
  • You had to adapt to a whole new way of life.

These characteristics alone will help you stand out to future employers, academic institutions, and overall improve your resume. If the work you did is unrelated to your area of interest, then your experience makes you more dynamic and able to take on entirely new challenges. If you volunteered in a similar field, then you can demonstrate the skills acquired and your capacity to work in a low-resource setting.

Planning the Next Adventure

Let's be honest, after the excitement of being around loved ones and eating your favorite foods wears off, your wanderlust creeps up again! So many places to go and experiences to be had! Why not satisfy your craving for adventure by planning another adventure!? It doesn't have to be abroad, it could be in your own backyard. A camping trip, exploring a new city, a road trip to a new state -- you don't have to jump on a plane right away.

Meanwhile, save up and decide where in the world you want to go next. Go Overseas is great for ideas on where to go and who to go with. Whether you want to study, teach, volunteer again or just travel abroad, there's always another adventure waiting for you!

Suggested Programs For Your Next Adventure...

Returning home, it can seem like your life volunteering abroad was only a dream. One day you're hanging out on your porch watching a monkey run off into the bush, two days later you’re sitting at a coffee shop catching up with old friends and drinking lattes. There is a lot to process as you think over your experiences. By preparing yourself mentally, accepting changes, and finding ways to make your life at home fulfilling, you will allow your volunteer experience to grow into more than a dream. And remember, you can always have a second helping, so get back out there!

Photo Credits: Volunteers in Ghana, IDV Media, and Hristina Mangelova.
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.