There's no question that volunteering abroad is a huge leap into the unknown. But we're all human, and sometimes we want to look before we leap. Having some idea of what it's like on the other side can help motivate us to take that final plunge and hop on a plane bound for the other side of the world to work in a community we've probably never even heard of before we signed up to live there.
Go Overseas has interviewed nearly 1,000 people upon their return from teaching, volunteering, studying, or interning abroad. Through their firsthand experience, these people help us understand how they decided on their particular program, what life in the field was like, and just how great the life-long impact on them was once they came home.
Although the decision was tough, we chose 9 inspiring interviews from people who have spent time volunteering overseas (with an emphasis on low or no-cost placements), categorized those interviews based on geography, and provided our favorite excerpts. We hope these insider perspectives on volunteering all over the world encourage you to follow in their footsteps and experience for yourself how the world moves to embrace you once you simply open your arms.
Megan Stark: Volunteered with the Ubuntu Building Project in South Africa
What did you do on a daily basis while volunteering in South Africa?
I worked at an orphanage, so our daily routine at the township started off with breaking down tasks among the group to rebuild the school fence, the playground, and most importantly the building itself. We were able to spend time with the kids during their lunch breaks and reveled in learning their songs and games.
Once school was out and we had wrapped up, we would travel back to the volunteer house where local women prepared us their traditional meals with abundant food from the area. Then we all would head out to the township's soccer field that previous volunteers had built to run athletic camps and keep the kids active. The older kids would play pickup games of soccer while all the younger kids were taken to the playground.
Once the sun set, we returned to the house and filled our nights with stories and card games. Having no radio, cable, or internet was a blessing as I continue to appreciate how much I was able to learn so much about the other "vollies".
What was your biggest takeaway from the trip?
It would be shocking if my worldview didn't change after my volunteer trip. As I mentioned, this experience showed me how fortunate we are here and how beautifully different life is there. We lived off local foods and drank from their rainwater retainers. It showed me to use my resources that are at arm's length and try to kick my processed chip addiction.
This group opened my eyes to that fact that a small impact can progress to bigger changes and to "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." (Margaret Mead)
Ana Jovanovic: Volunteer with NGOs in Malaysia
- Country: Malaysia
- Program: SOLS 24/7: Volunteer in Malaysia with Project 100
- Read the full interview with Ana
What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?
Just go! Don't wait for the perfect moment, enough money in your pockets, or others' approval.
If you keep waiting for the perfect conditions, you might never leave. If your heart is in the right place and in your mind you are always somewhere else, rather than at your home, just buy that ticket you always wanted and hit the road!
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
Would you ever disrespect the hospitality of a friend that invites you in his home? Probably not. The same goes when you start to work for someone's company.
There are a certain set of rules and expectations you should follow up, in order to understand the perception and the idea of people in SOLS 24/7. I have worked for many different NGOs and I could see the clear differences in work approach, but instead of being judgmental and saying that SOLS is doing stuff in a wrong way, I understood that their approach is very different and unique.
So be open-minded and let the program teach you about its mission. Once you manage to do that, I guarantee there won't be any misunderstandings or problems. You need to open your heart to SOLS and SOLS will open its heart to you.
Kaylee Butler: Volunteered as an English Teacher in Poland
What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going overseas?
A lot of my friends feel like they missed the chance to go abroad because they wanted to go to university/college first. I shoot that idea down really fast. One of my best friends on the program turned 26 while we were there.
There definitely isn't an age limit. I tell them how much I got out of it and how much fun it was. It was a great way to find out more about myself and the world around me.
What made this experience unique and special?
This experience was so unique all because of the people I met. From the volunteers I was there with to the people I met in hostels and the kids I taught. They were all amazing and lovely people and I loved meeting all of them.
At the start of my travels, I thought to myself "What will I see this trip?" That question quickly got turned around to "Who will I meet this trip." I loved the element of surprise that came with it. If you go to London, you know (to an extent) that you will see Big Ben, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, and others. One thing you don't know however is who you will meet. I made some lifelong friends met some amazing mentors and heard incredible stories. It was awesome.
Olivia Lessard: Volunteered at an Orphanage in Tanzania
What was the hardest or most challenging part of your experience?
Seeing how imperfect everything was, seeing the flaws in the good systems like The Small Things, and seeing the corruption and abuse in the bad systems like some of the government and other orphanages. Seeing what a complex issue this was. Seeing that nothing could fix all the problems in the world.
I already knew this, but it was hard to experience. That was the hardest thing. But that's one of the biggest enemies of change. That's why the motto of The Small Things is perfect: "We can do no great things. Only small things with great love." (Mother Teresa)
One of the quotes I repeat most often to myself, one of the quotes I could not live without, is this: "We cannot help everyone, everywhere, but we can help someone, somewhere."
How has this experience impacted your future?
Already, it has already made me see the world differently, made me love children more, made me more committed to my lifelong dream of adopting. It has made me more determined to not let complacency creep into my life. It has urged me to do more good and to start setting concrete goals about the ways I can give back a percentage of what has been given to me.
But I am positive that this experience has impacted my future in ways I do not even comprehend yet. I am in nursing school and hope to enter a program that Indian Health Services in the United States teaches for use on the Indian reservations: how to be a midwife in impoverished and rural conditions.
Katherine Albers: Volunteered with Conservation in New Zealand
What made this trip meaningful to you, or how did this trip change your perceptions, future path?
During my time abroad in New Zealand I really learned to appreciate the environment. My project involved conservation work where I was able to see every step of the restoration project from collecting seeds to planting mature trees and every step in between.
I knew that I was making a positive impact on the world. And now, in ten years I can revisit the area I worked in and see the long-term impact that I created in the environment.
Also, during the trip my project leader chatted with the group about ways we can continue to make a positive impact at home. This really resonated with me and now I am so much more environmentally aware of my everyday decisions. Even if someone wasn't interested in conservation work, I would recommend this project because it really changed my life.
What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?
If anyone I know is considering going abroad I do my very best to convince them to go! Going abroad is an incredible way to study a different culture, practice a new language, or just to see another area of the world and appreciate the beauty of a new location.
I also warn people who want to go abroad that if they do, they will undoubtedly get the travel bug. This means that once you travel once, you will constantly think about the next opportunity to travel again. I caught the bug when I went to Uganda, Africa, and now I am always on the lookout for new programs that take me abroad.
Luke Glisan: Volunteer With Children With Disabilities in Vietnam
What was the most rewarding moment of the experience?
Right at the top of the list has to be the day Nam, a 19-year-old boy at the orphanage, walked on his own while he smiled and clapped his hands. Nam has severe cerebral palsy and possibly other mental or physical disabilities.
He's probably a little under 5 feet tall and weighs about 60 lbs. He had been able to walk a few steps on his own before, and more than a few steps with help from a volunteer. But he hadn't been able to make much progress.
Then one warm sunny day, as I was holding Nam up while he slowly walked outside his room, he let go of my hand and started walking on his own. Nam's face lit up. I could feel his pride. Then he started clapping as he walked. It was pure joy and we were both loving the moment.
Has your worldview changed as a result of this experience?
I learned more than a few things about overcoming challenges. I was shocked to see some of the severe physical and mental disabilities the kids have. That feeling quickly changed to complete awe at how the kids make the most of everything they have.
Living in a disability orphanage in Vietnam doesn't allow for much complaining. It also doesn't allow for pity. Neither of those emotions does much good. The kids showed me incredible strength that I had never seen before to make the most of any situation and find the good in your surroundings. I think of them often for guidance when I have a decision to make and it helps me focus on what is really important to me.
Steph Dyson: Volunteered with Community Development in Bolivia
Why did you pick this program?
Up Close Bolivia attracted me by their credentials as being community-directed and their commitment to long-term goals, such as sustainability and grassroots development. When I was researching the organization, I saw that every project that they run -- from English classes in the local school to equine therapy sessions with disabled children and their families, to the Valley of the Moon Children's Centre - are rooted in empowering and supporting the work of local people.
It's really inspiring! It seemed like such a rewarding program, and when I spoke with the founders, Rolando and Emma, they came across as having so much experience of successful and powerful grassroots community partnerships that I just had work with and learn from them!
What is the most important thing you learned abroad?
Volunteering abroad teaches you so much about yourself and how resilient and adaptable you can be in any situation. By the time I started working with Up Close Bolivia, I'd already been in Bolivia around eight months and had learned that life in this rarely-visited country can be tough at times, particularly when you're working in small communities where few people speak your language.
I've learned that you've got to be incredibly adaptable and not stress out too much when something doesn't go as planned, or things change at the last minute.
Most importantly, I've learned that, regardless of where you choose to volunteer, getting some grasp of the local language will be the most important thing that you do. Suddenly, your interactions with people will be completely different, as even with a very basic vocabulary you can be friendly and polite with those around you, which is essential to put others at ease.
You also need to be humble and recognize that you're a tiny cog in a much larger machine. Listening to others and learning as much as you can from them is probably the most valuable thing you can do, and will make the entire experience so much more rewarding.
What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?
I am always trying to persuade my friends to leave their jobs and volunteer abroad! My own experiences have made me realize that volunteering can actually benefit your future career plans: I know that the skills of resilience, dedication, problem-solving and working with such a diverse range of people from different cultures that I have used during this experience will be invaluable when I return to the UK to get a job.
Jessica Brown: Volunteered for Women's Health in Ecuador
- Country: Ecuador
- Program: CFHI’s Reproductive Health Program
- Read the full interview with Jessica
Do you think your program changed you as a person?
Absolutely. I grew leaps and bounds over the 8 weeks I was part of the program. I arrived feeling overwhelmed by a huge, bustling metropolis and slightly intimidated at my clinic sites, but it was only because I was pushed completely out of my comfort zone and didn't have a fluent handle on the language. I began the program with basic conversational Spanish skills.
With each passing day I learned a huge amount in the classroom and clinic, and when I applied the new skills/knowledge I saw the results. I was more capable of communicating which helped me to better understand situations in the clinic, conversations between patient and practitioner, and I helped me to network within my clinic rotations.
For example, if I wanted to spend more time in one aspect of the department the medical coordinator would send me to that ward and assign me a new preceptor.
Eventually I was able to advocate for myself and ask if I could spend time in the Radiology department; this worked out and I shadowed radiologists and technologists for a couple days per week at each clinic site, in addition to working in the reproductive health ward.
After the initial 8 weeks, I went on to do another month of traveling on my own, to further explore Ecuador, and the life skills I gained from my CFHI experience enabled me to navigate around the country with confidence.
Connie Palagi: Volunteered with Global Volunteers in Cuba
What's your favorite story to tell about your time abroad?
My favorite "stories" come from the side streets, the little makeshift stands where people would try to sell whatever they could.
If they had a pig, they killed it, cut it up, put it out on a table and put up a sign like "Jose's Butcher Shop". If they had a few vegetables or some crackers, they would do the same.
I am a small business owner and it gives you an entirely new view of survival and ingenuity.
Tell us about an experience you had that you could not have had at home.
There were so many little street experiences we would never have. Cuba is dripping with talented artists, music, cultural ingenuity and alley upon alley of creative artwork made from NOTHING: Hubcaps, metal, rebar, paint, etc. Unbelievable creativity in the midst of poverty.
If you're ready to set off on your own life-changing volunteer abroad experience, now's the time! Maybe you'll be in our next roundup.