Volunteering Abroad: Is it right for you?

By making the choice to volunteer, you unlock a whole dimension to yourself that could just lie dormant and untested your entire life. You get to experience life in another country. There are gains that will vary from individual to individual in terms of discovering depths of respect, understanding, compassion, maturity; inevitably, it leads to a re-appraisal of oneself and to being pleased with what you discover.

Entering a part of the world where huge obvious challenges face ordinary indigenous people who don’t have the advantages of a full-scale welfare system is going to be an eye-opener. There will be some feelings of helplessness in the face of what appear to be overwhelming imbalances; but the huge distinction is that you haven’t gone as an observer, but, rather, as a full-blown participant in alleviating some of the effects of those inequalities.

Volunteering is not about utter self-denial. No one is expected to miss out on the up sides of travel. Throw yourself into exploring the country during your time off; long weekends can often be negotiated and with a circle of new friends in the form of your fellow volunteers, you will have companions to travel with to digest experiences with and to get the most out of it.

For many, the initial idea to do a spell of volunteering coincides with a natural break, possibly between the end of schooling and the start of university, or when studies are over and direct entry into a career is not yet available (or, possibly, wanted). For others it may be after choosing to leave a job or having taken a sabbatical. Volunteering is far more than just plugging a gap in your year, in your studies or in your career. It is an ideal way to convert one of those gaps into an enriching time. For some, the departure from one’s normal life, the break with routine and a change from the usual circle of acquaintances, while it can be a little disorientating, turns out to be just the right thing for clearing the mind and pointing the way towards the next path in life.

The placement that you take up as a volunteer – provided it is being administered by a reputable organisation – exists because there is a real need. The bodies which organise volunteers typically are NGOs with an agenda to improve conditions for people in their country through the responsible management of a (hopefully) continuing stream of volunteers. Since there is considerable organisation involved in recruiting those volunteers, accommodating, feeding and transporting them, not to mention training implications, the appointment of a volunteer is not taken lightly. Social development bodies come to rely on volunteers as a vital part of realising the projects that have been set in motion.

In most of the countries where you are likely to encounter a volunteer placement, the system is well-established and is run by paid teams who are experienced in deploying volunteers for maximum effect. The result is that the individuals who are directly receiving your help as a volunteer whether you are teaching English, doing environmental work, delivering AIDS education, or assisting in an orphanage, have been anticipating your arrival and actively need you there. Volunteer programs rely heavily on continuity, and so there needs to be regular turnaround. It is into this continuum that you will slot in.

Deciding on just how long a stint to sign up for is very much a personal decision and will depend on factors that only the prospective volunteer can determine. These will include among other things; how much time is available away from one’s studies or career, the level of commitment and stamina one feels one possesses or the amount of money at one’s disposal. A common post-volunteering sentiment is: “I should have given it longer.” There are undoubtedly a number of things in favour of the longer stay. Very often, if lodging with a host family, a deep bond and deeper understanding of the culture is only achieved by remaining longer than a week or two. A longer placement can be more rewarding as the volunteer finds they are given more responsibility, they get on to a better footing with the staff on the ground and, above all, develop fuller relationships with the local people being helped.

There are of course a number of challenges including:

  • The challenge of rubbing along with other people. This can include having to accept direction and supervision from people who don’t perhaps think as you do.
  • Having to face the fact that your ideals don’t always coincide with reality.
  • Living with fewer luxuries, having to be sparing with hot water, eating sometimes less varied food, getting more tired than you are perhaps used to, and acquiring bumps, bruises and blisters (if the volunteering you are doing is physical).
  • Some rules and regulations... it doesn’t take much thought to realise that they are in place for everyone’s safety and well-being.

There is always lots to laugh about, but also, in almost all cases, volunteers can’t help being humbled by the greater deprivation which the local people put up with long term. The people you meet, including other volunteers, are guaranteed to make you learn some lessons about life and about yourself.

Employers generally regard the initiative that volunteering takes to be a plus when recruiting, so thoughts of the effects on careers should not deter you from volunteering. The new skills gained can be incorporated in your CV and often prove valuable in those sticky interview situations. Last but not least, volunteering is a way of networking. You may be able to make use of your contacts overseas in mutually beneficial ways.

In the end, by volunteering, you have given freely of your skills, your energy, and that very precious commodity, your time. This in itself is rewarding. The appreciation – by whatever means it is conveyed – is almost certain to outweigh what you as a volunteer believe you have given.

Try it! Meet yourself in a new environment and discover what your real depths are.