Volunteer Abroad

My Volunteer Abroad Experience Changed My Life… Now What?

Valerie Stimac

Valerie was the previous Managing Editor and helped produce all of the amazing articles and guides you see on Go Overseas. She attended grad school abroad in London.

Now that you’ve returned from volunteering abroad, you may be thinking: What’s next?

Many volunteers are deeply moved by their experience, but don't know what to do once they return home. They want to continue giving back, and find ways to carry the experience in their lives, but may feel lost in how that actually works.

As we explored this idea, we spoke with the team at United Planet. United Planet is an international non-profit that places volunteers in over 100 community service programs around the world. They've worked with thousands of volunteers to find impactful ways to volunteer abroad, and know the struggles of returning home well. Here are some of the insights they shared on how you can move forward and continue giving back after you return from a volunteer abroad experience.

Learn How to Articulate Your Experience

One of the most difficult parts of returning home after volunteer abroad is learning how to think and speak about your experience. In some ways, you may find yourself struggling to find the right words to share how important this experience was in your life.

Akaya is a team member at United Planet, and she shared her thoughts on the issue. "In thinking about my travel experiences, I struggled to articulate what I know I’ve gained both within myself and as far as skills to bring to the workplace," she says.

Here are some tips for reframing your thoughts about volunteering abroad, and how you can share them with others:

  • Make a list of your responsibilities as a volunteer abroad. Try to come up with the specific tasks and the skills you used to accomplish each one. When someone asks "what did you do over there?" now you have an answer!
  • Write a 'day in the life' story about your experience; identify the most enjoyable parts of your day. Practice talking about how and why those were enjoyable to you.
  • Look at favorite photos from your experience and try writing 1-2 sentences about what made these powerful memories for you. What did you learn from them, and how can you succinctly say what you learned?

These ideas are the tip of the iceberg in practicing articulation. They can help you start brainstorming about how your experiences can be translated into words.

Connect with a Community of Volunteers

United Planet shared that one of the most valuable ways to continue your volunteer abroad experience after returning home is to connect with fellow volunteer alumni in your local community or on the internet. Are there meetups or forums where you can share your story and learn about others' stories?

  • Try searching Meetup.com or Facebook events to find local opportunities to meet other volunteers.
  • Search for Facebook Groups or on Google for online communities of volunteers who continue to share their experiences and tips.

Here on Go Overseas, we encourage alumni to leave reviews of their volunteer abroad experience. We also have articles about the steps you can take to find fellow volunteer alumni upon returning home.

Find Ways to Continue Giving Back

In addition to the above ideas, you can also continue to volunteer after coming home. For many people, the feelings of giving back through volunteer work are so good that they want to continue giving back. There's nothing wrong with this! In your own community, there are always ways to get involved. Try some of these options to find ones that work for you:

  • United Way offers a resource to find volunteer opportunities in many cities.
  • Check with your local food pantry, hospital, nursing homes, or other service providers to see if they allow volunteer help. Other options could be you local library or nearby schools.
  • Chat with your volunteer abroad provider to see if they have suggestions about volunteer opportunities once you come home. Or, see if there's another volunteer opportunity abroad that you want to do – you can go abroad again!

Translate Your Volunteer Skills into Your Career

One of the best long-term ways that your volunteer abroad experience can stay with you in your life is by using those skills in your career. This may look different for each person:

  • Maybe you are able to find new responsibilities in your current job that allow you to use your volunteer skills.
  • Maybe you look for a new job that allows you to use your skills on a more regular basis.
  • Maybe you start planning a career that slowly adds more and more of your volunteer experience back into your work. For example, if you developed a passion for education, you could move toward a career in teaching or education administration.

When it comes time to apply for a new job or ask for new responsibilities, you'll need to use the advice above to articulate your volunteer abroad skills and put them on your resume. You'll also need to be able to speak about them in your job interview. If you do this right, you can unlock a professional path that lets you continue living your volunteer experience throughout your life.

Your Volunteer Experience Doesn't End When You Come Home

As in most transformative travel experiences, the impact of your volunteer experience will last long after you return to 'real' life. After spending time as a volunteer abroad, you will be changed and your perspective will be too. It's common to experience reverse culture shock and wonder how you can continue helping others on a regular basis.

If you feel this way, let that empower you. There are plenty of opportunities, both at home and abroad, to give back and help communities thrive. Whether you choose to volunteer at home, head abroad to continue volunteering, or find ways to translate your volunteer experience into a job or career, you can continue to live an impactful life and help others.