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How Volunteering Abroad Can Take Over Your Life... If You Want It To

Natalie Southwick

At the beginning of 2012, I moved to Colombia, to start a year as a volunteer teacher with WorldTeach. I’m currently writing this article from my cozy apartment in Bogotá, watching all the poor fools caught in the near-daily rain outside. The sharp math experts out there may notice that it is somewhat more than a year later – and, in fact, I just signed on to a job that will probably keep me here through the end of 2015. What began as an experimental year volunteering abroad turned into a second year working, and then another, and another. While I was looking the other way, it seems, going abroad took over my life.

There are many types of travelers out there. There are those who rip through a location like the Looney Tunes version of the Tasmanian Devil, trying to cram as much as possible into a short time period without ever letting their feet stop moving. There are those who commit to absorbing everything about the place they are, for however long that takes. There are those who plan their trips around sports, theater events or just what they want to eat (hey, fellow food-journeyers!). And then, somewhere along the way, some of us slide from visiting into living, making the most of our time abroad as expats.

While settling down abroad for the sort-of long-term certainly isn’t for everyone, it’s been a great way for me to find work in fields that interest me – and, in many ways, to figure out what those fields are. Living in Colombia has helped me focus on my future and shaped what I think my career path may be going forward. It’s also been a lot of fun along the way. Expats arrive at their current location and current jobs in thousands of different ways, so I can’t speak for anyone else, but for those of you interested in the idea of turning a temporary move abroad into more of a career move and Life Choice, here is my personal five-step guide to making it happen:

1. Have serious anxiety about getting too comfortable

Bogota

This is sort of the young-traveler version of a midlife crisis, although it can hit at just about any age. I had mine when I was 22 -- less than a year out of college, living in my favorite city, lots of friends, great social life, good boyfriend, job prospects, everything was sunshine and rainbows and kittens.

While this was great, and I was happy, I also knew that it would be way too easy to start settling –- and then, suddenly, one morning I’d wake up and I’d be 30 years old and own my own house or matching sets of towels or something equally adult-esque. This is great for some people. It was absolutely terrifying to me. There’s not necessarily any bad time of your life to travel or take a gap year, but it’s much easier when you aren’t paying a mortgage or looking for childcare or someone to watch the dog.

Knowing that I had minimal things tying me down made leaving easier, but I still had to make a conscious decision to do it. I always want to say this when people casually say something like “Oh, I wish I could move to another country.” The truth is, unless you are legally prohibited from leaving the country, you can, technically, move. If you want to do it, you can – you just have to feel confident at the time that the benefits are worth whatever comforts or relationships you might be giving up to do so.

2. Choose a destination that discourages expectations

Bear with me here – I’m not saying to pick somewhere you think you’ll hate, but I think there’s a benefit of going to a place where you haven’t already formed a mental map and planned your first three vacations. There are plenty of countries – Costa Rica, Thailand, Ecuador, to name a few – that are wildly popular with expats, for many good reasons: they’re beautiful, relatively inexpensive, and there’s an infrastructure there for foreigners.

It’s hard not to start to like a place when every day is a new discovery, and limiting your pre-arrival expectations goes a long way toward making that possible.

We know some things about these places. We think we know what to expect, and that in many ways limits the surprises. Again, great for some people, not ideal for others. One of the wonderful (and sometimes embarrassing) things about my first few months in Colombia was how everything was a surprise. Nobody told me about this, I thought to myself probably about 12 times a day. This requires more effort, sure, but it also made life a lot more fun. It’s hard not to start to like a place when every day is a new discovery, and limiting your pre-arrival expectations goes a long way toward making that possible. Plus, a location that’s less popular with the expat crowd means you’ll have less competition if your job-hunting plans involve using your language skills.

3. Stay busy

Keep busy

This is the key distinction between being on vacation and being a resident. Whether you’re moving for a job, internship abroad, volunteer position or just for the hell of it, you’re going to want something to fill up your days besides wandering around and eating everything in sight (although you should schedule time for that too). I already had this lined up, since I arrived as a volunteer teacher, but it’s entirely possible to find plenty to keep you occupied even if you show up on your own and want to volunteer without an organization.

Start volunteering at a place that can use your help or find a temporary job in a hostel, teaching classes, working at a coffee shop or blogging. You’re going to need something to give your days a bit of structure, especially if you’re hunting for a more permanent job at the same time. It'll take time before you feel at home as an expat, but it'll happen.

When I finished my volunteer year, I didn’t have a full-time job to jump into, but I did have a few short-term gigs, which helped me plan my days and tide me over (and pay rent) until I found a few more stable opportunities. Like job-hunting anywhere else, it’s not always wise to take the first thing that comes along, but having something to do helps keep your mind and body active, and may even help you make some friends and contacts along the way.

4. Set an end date with the knowledge that you might not stick to it.

This may only work for me and other people who are equally obsessed with deadlines, but it helps add a sense of urgency to extracurricular activities and job-hunting alike. In 2012, when I thought I would only be here for one year, I jumped at every opportunity to travel, taste new food, visit new places and do as much as possible. With only 12 months to spend here, I figured I had to make the best of it.

Sensing that end date looming in front of me helped motivate me to keep looking and find what I wanted.

Though that didn’t turn out to be accurate, the desire to maximize my time led to some really wonderful experiences, and I’ve tried to keep that sense of immediacy with me, if only because it discourages me from spending weekends marathoning episodes of Game of Thrones. At the same time, when I was job-hunting, I set a deadline for myself, with the understanding that if I couldn’t figure out how to support myself by then, I would admit defeat and head home. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but sensing that end date looming in front of me helped motivate me to keep looking and find what I wanted.

5. Make connections

make new friends

Networking is important no matter where you are, but it is absolutely vital in a new city, especially when you may not have access to anyone from your home country, much less your field. It can be hard to move past seeing networking as asking for favors, but I found having few other options helped me get over that feeling pretty quickly.

If you have a marketable skill set, chances are there are opportunities out there for someone like you – but without friends in high places, you may not know where to look. I very quickly got comfortable with the idea of asking people if they knew of any open jobs, or needed anything translated or edited.

This isn’t just useful for jobs, though – networking also helps define your life in your new environment. Make connections with new friends, co-workers, students, your neighborhood, the guy selling avocados on the street corner outside your apartment. Create attachments. Develop a little possessiveness about your favorite spots – your local café, the closest dive bar, your favorite shoe repair guy or taco cart. Figure out which bus is your bus. Find things you love so much that the thought of leaving them renders you emotionally dysfunctional, and you may have all the motivation you need to stay.

It’s not about how far you go, but it is about allowing life to take you there.

In the end, we all have experiences that shape and re-direct our lives, whether they take place in other countries or the comfort of our own homes. It’s not about how far you go, but it is about allowing life to take you there. Sometimes it requires effort, or sacrifice, or the acknowledgement that you seriously just agreed to spend two more years without access to pumpkin beer. But if it’s really where you want to be going, it won’t feel like one decision or one choice has drastically altered your entire existence. It just feels like the next step, bringing you closer to where you want to go – wherever in the world that may be.

Additional Resources
Photo Credits: Author, Bogota, At work in Bogota.
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.