As a former international volunteer and a go-to resource for volunteers participating in BaseCamp International Centers’ programs, I have learned how to successfully make a meaningful contribution to a host organization while having an enjoyable experience abroad.
I’ve learned a few lessons that are worth thinking about before leaving for your next volunteer adventure:
1. Be prepared to invent your job.
While it’s essential to fulfill your host organization’s needs, it is also important to demonstrate your unique abilities. Some organizations may not be accustomed to hosting foreign volunteers. Finding out what you can do for them will likely be a dialogue and not just them delegating tasks to you. For example, maybe you can use your English skills to help create a blog or website that can help the organization gain visibility with donors.
Think about ways that you may be able to make a sustainable impact. For this to happen, you must communicate with the organization you’re working with to better understand what projects will be useful to them, and what they will be motivated to maintain when you’re not around. You don’t want a project you help initiate to fall flat in your absence.
2. Be adventurous!
You’re volunteering in an orphanage in Peru, a hospital in Nepal, or a school in Tanzania, and your plane ticket home is booked for the day after your placement. Change it! You have landscapes to explore, cultures to soak up, friends to make and a language to learn. I’ve seen many volunteers book their return ticket home prior to arriving in their host country and go home despite not being ready to do so because they feel locked in to their ticket.
Find out what the policy is to change your ticket before booking it. Some flight companies charge more than others and you’ll want some flexibility. You may regret going home right away, but you won’t regret visiting Machu Picchu, sticking around for a Nepali festival or climbing Kilimanjaro. Few get the option of such experiences, and you only get so many. Take advantage of it!
3. Everyone says have no expectations and an open mind, but I mean it.
Don’t expect to make friends the first day. Don’t assume that you’ll love all the food. Every culture has weird food and as a Canadian trying to explain the appeal of poutine to someone who has never heard of it, I was reminded of that quickly.
Most importantly, don’t expect those at your host organization to stop dead in their tracks to show you the ins and outs of everything. You’re there because the need is high, so there might not be a great deal of time to train you. Having said that, don’t let it dissuade you from asking questions or be discouraged if you feel like you’re getting lost in the shuffle. When you get home at the end of the day, think of all the questions you have and put forth the crucial ones the next day. With patience and effort, you’ll find your place.
4. Study the language.
If you’re volunteering in India for one month, it’s not very realistic that you’re going to learn Hindi. But if you make the effort to learn as much as you can, even a handful of phrases, people will respond positively to your effort. Shopping in broken Hindi certainly made for a more meaningful experience than throwing in the towel right away and speaking in English. It can only help with your bargaining too! Take a genuine interest in the culture you’re engaging with, and you’ll learn more, people will sincerely appreciate it and you’ll enjoy yourself.
5. Be aware that every culture operates by their own clock.
In my hometown, Ottawa, if you have a meeting or interview you should arrive at least a few minutes early. Where I currently live, Quito, Ecuador, I’m not surprised if some people are 20 minutes late. When I was working as a journalist in Mumbai, India, I learned that you should carry a book because some coworkers, professors or trains might not show up at all.
Adjusting to different schedules can be very frustrating, but don’t get angry or give up because you’re not sure what to expect. You can express your expectations, but being rude won’t help your case. The most difficult travelers I have ever met are those who don’t hesitate to tell everyone how it is in their country and expect everyone else to act accordingly. Don’t be that person.