The New Year. Time to make resolutions for what we didn't accomplish in the past year, and hope to accomplish in the coming one. Naturally, we at Go Overseas hope your resolution has something to do with meaningful travel, be it studying, interning, or -- my personal favorite! -- volunteering abroad.
If volunteering abroad is something you truly want to do, no reason should stop you.
We know things happen. Unforeseen obstacles, obligations, and busy schedules all join forces to keep you from following through with your plans. I also know that planning for and participating in a meaningful trip abroad is time consuming and can be a financial burden. But there’s one thing you should remember: it’s worth sticking to it.
If your resolution for 2015 is to volunteer abroad, I’m here to help you stay with that resolution, get out there, and do it.
Understand There's a Solution for Every Excuse
Planning for a volunteer abroad trip is not something that just magically happens. It requires forethought, budgeting, research and preparation. With all of these tasks, it’s easy to procrastinate and not follow through. This is how your volunteer trip keeps getting pushed to the next year.
Maybe you think you can't afford it financially or to take time off of work for an extended amount of time. Maybe your class schedule doesn't leave much time to devote to volunteering abroad. Maybe there are so many volunteer organizations out there that you don’t know which to choose and get overwhelmed. Maybe the idea of going to a foreign country is scary and intimidating. Maybe you think you'll miss your friends and family too much (hey, FOMO abroad is real).
Through talking with tons of people about why they don't make room for travel in their lives, I've heard every excuse. There's always going to be a reason not to go, but if volunteering abroad is something you truly want to do, no reasons should stop you.
As always, we at Go Overseas have solutions for each excuse you might have -- and, in fact, have been blogging about them throughout 2014 and waaaay beyond that!
- Where do you start? Go Overseas' find a program search engine is one good place to start. Indeed also lists some longer term volunteer abroad options.
- You don't have the time? Maybe you really do. From short term programs to career sabbaticals; spring and summer break volunteer programs to post grad positions that will help you jump start your career: there's a wide variety of options for you. It's just a matter of finding one that fits your schedule.
- The dreaded culture shock. You know my favorite part of traveling? Getting to a country and thinking "hey, what was I so worried about?" In the end, these differences are what make it fun, and scary as it may seem, international travel isn't as intimidating in actuality as it is in your head.
- FOMO. Especially if you're going to be gone for a short term volunteer project, everything will be there for you when you get back. If you're going abroad for longer, then I won't lie. Things will change, and that's OK. You're getting a great experience as a volunteer rather than doing the same ol' same ol' at home.
- Money. We often associate travel and vacation with expensive. However, traveling, living, and volunteering abroad is not the same as a 2-week vacation in Cabo, and definitely doesn't have the same price tag. Sure, you may have to pay to volunteer abroad, but plenty of programs offer stipends, affordable costs, and opportunities to fundraise or apply a scholarship.
There's never going to be a perfect time to go abroad, so just do it now! You won't regret it ten years from now.
Set Actual Goals
The very first step in achieving your travel objectives is to actually set them. It’s easy to say you want to volunteer abroad next year, but what are you going to do to make sure it actually happens? How are you going to find the money? When and where are you going to go? For how long? With whom? What do you want to do?
It’s easy to say you want to volunteer abroad next year, but what are you going to do to make sure it actually happens?
Setting goals gives you both a long term vision while providing a short term motivation. Use the following list as a roadmap to help you see your goal of volunteering abroad through:
First, figure out what you like to do: This is important to do in general, but when it comes to setting your volunteer goals, you are going to be much more motivated to follow through with something if you enjoy it. Think about what you enjoy doing in life, be it working with healthcare, education, the environment, or maybe even something more specific like soccer or the arts. Decide if you like social or community projects better than research or construction projects.
Then -- more importantly -- figure out what skills you can offer: One characteristic of responsible volunteering is to be able to transfer useful skills to your host community so that they can continue using them after you're gone. Figure out what you're qualified to do, in addition to what you like, so that your contribution is more of an equal exchange, rather than you just learning something from the project without giving back. (For more information about who helps whom while volunteering abroad, read our article on who's helping whom with volunteering abroad?)
Clearly identify your goals within volunteering abroad: They should be achievable goals, ones that allow you to clearly define exactly why you want to volunteer abroad. Avoid vague resolutions like “I want to volunteer abroad.” Instead, say “I want to apply my knowledge of women's rights to at risk groups in Asia" or “I want to practice my Spanish speaking skills while volunteering at a summer camp in Chile.” Spending time thinking about what you want to accomplish in your life will help you narrow down your search and choose a volunteer program that’s right for you.
Write them down: This seems like a silly thing to do, but physically writing down your goals after you identify them makes them more real and holds you accountable. You can even write them down and hang them in your room or on your mirror so they’re always on your mind.
Break each goal down into actions and prioritize them: Once you decide where you want to volunteer abroad or what you want to do (like, volunteering in India, for example) assign two hours each week to researching different organizations. You should also research relevant issues and what the volunteer industry is like in that country -- it’s part of being a responsible and informed volunteer. Start your budget and talk to your boss about your plans. Decide when you'll go and for how long, buy flights, schedule vaccination appointments, and figure out what to pack for your volunteer trip.
Keep track of your progress: If you realize that it’s already March and you haven’t contacted any volunteer organizations, you are not staying on top of your goals. Set dates and deadlines ahead of time and make sure you follow through. You can also write down your timeline and hang it somewhere visible so you can keep track.
Following these tips will help establish a strong foundation for following through with your goals. You'll be one step closer to making volunteering abroad a reality, but you're not done yet!
Get Ready to Go
When I graduated college, I had never planned a volunteer trip before. I didn't know where to start. Then, I began researching different organizations and figuring out what I wanted to do. This first step was slightly easier for me, since I already knew where I wanted to go. If your destination is unknown, your first steps will look a little different, but either way, your pre-departure steps (which we brushed on in the previous section) will look a little like this:
First, you'll want to choose your organization and destination. As a volunteer, it is your responsibility to make sure that the organization you choose is trustworthy, actually benefitting the community, and will keep you safe. If there are ever any doubts about the integrity of the organization, contact them and ask questions. Make them convince you of their sustainability and commitment to helping the community.
After you find a great organization, you can then pick your program and country according to your skill set and interests. If you are one of those brave souls who are taking a career break or volunteering post retirement, there are some great organizations with programs more suited to adult participants. Picking your program can be a tough choice, but also one of the most exciting parts of the process.
Next, decide when you want to go so that your program can start preparing for your arrival and you can prepare for your departure. Hopefully, by this step, you've already been in contact with the organization and both of you have some idea of when you're looking to volunteer and for how long. Also, if there are any applications you need to submit, do so now!
Once you know you've been accepted, you'll want to set a budget and fundraise. Research your estimated program costs, flight costs, vaccination costs, and any extra travel expenses you might have, and figure out how much money you'll need to save. Many organizations offer fundraising platforms, but you can also get creative on your own.
Host a party where instead of gifts, everyone brings donations to help fund your volunteer project or host organization. On top of this, look at ways you can cut back on costs in your daily life. Here are 30 Ways to Cut Your Monthly Expenses, including things like bulk cook your meals at home, don't buy take away coffee every day, and shop at thrift stores.
Following these steps worked for me, but it wasn’t everything. You need to frame your mindset around making volunteering abroad a priority. Without that commitment, you won’t have the motivation to make your travel aspirations come true. At the end of this getting started research process, you'll likely be surprised by all the things you didn't know about volunteer abroad, and it will likely seem far less overwhelming.
Why 2015 Is Your Year to Volunteer Abroad!
Do you need further encouragement to go volunteer abroad this year? Here are a list of seven benefits that will make all your effort worth it.
- Learning something new: Whether it be a skill, language, or certification, your experience abroad will undoubtedly teach you something that can be used in your daily life.
- Expanding your horizons: Jumping headfirst into an unknown country and culture is absolutely going to give you unique insight, change your perspective of the world, and give you something to think about after you return home.
- Reevaluating your priorities: By taking on the role of volunteer, you will be able to take the focus off yourself and on helping others. This will help you understand what’s truly important in your life.
- Talking about your cool new experiences: The next time the conversation turns to international relations at a party or meeting, you’ll be able to contribute with your thoughts and what you did while volunteering abroad.
- Putting things into perspective: If you feel your life going down a road you don’t particularly love, do something about it. Now. If traveling and volunteering is something you’ve always wanted to do, start making those plans today. If you feel stuck or confused about your path, taking time off to travel is an excellent way to do some soul searching.
- Helping to improve your host community: By transferring your skills to those in a developing country you are making a much more long lasting contribution. Like the old proverb, you're not giving fish away for free, you are teaching people how to fish, thus providing them with skills to continue improving their lives.
- Impressing college admissions or employers: In today's emerging global economy, having experience with living and working in different countries is incredibly important. Instead of just taking a vacation, you can volunteer and then leverage that experience to get a job or get accepted to college.
This year, instead of resolving to buy a gym membership that you only use for two months, or to read those books that have been collecting dust on your bookshelf, make a resolution to take action. If volunteering abroad has always been a dream of yours, now is the time to make it happen.