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What I Wish I Knew Before Volunteering Abroad

Charmaine Kong

Five things that surprised me working in international development. 

Dedicating your time to volunteering internationally is a great experience. But like many experiences, it can also have its fair shares of ups and downs. When those first months of excitement wears off and you’re integrated into the local culture, you start to see and understand aspects you didn’t before.

Everyone has a different international experience, but knowing what you’re getting yourself into is key to coming out at the end of it as a fuller person.

Here are five things I wish I knew about volunteering abroad before I headed overseas:

Culture shock will be more (and less) intense than you expect

Most people think of culture shock as simply missing home in the first several months after arriving at your new destination. While this may be true for some people, for others, culture shock can appear in many different ways, time and intensity levels too.

In general, culture shock happens in four different stages: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance. The range of emotions felt through these stages can vary greatly.

Being aware of how you may feel during these changing times can really help you adjust to your new home. Culture shock happens to all of us and it’s comforting to understand why you may be feeling a certain way and overcome it.

Things will be more different than you expect

No matter how worldly and travelled you are, there will still be surprises in how another country operates. Every country has its own quirks and ways of doing things—isn’t that the charm of it though?

Even though how you’d do it back home might be more efficient or more logical, try not to fight against it. Keep an open mind and go along with it. Who knows, there might be reasons why they do it that way and you might be able to learn something too.

Your great ideas? They may not be that great

It’s easy to go into a placement with wide-eyes and brimming with ideas. Which is great, and the organization you’re volunteering with would love your enthusiasm. But also understand you’re only there for a short period of time. After you leave your placement, how would they sustain those ideas?

Instead of joining a new placement with the mentality of changing it or wanting to implement your (obviously fantastic) ideas, it can be more beneficial for the organization if you observe what they actually need at the moment. Adopt and provide for their needs and limitations instead.

There's a difference between knowing and understanding a language

Being able to speak the local language is a great advantage, but that isn’t always applicable. Luckily, English is a very common second language, making it a lot easier to communicate.

I was relieved when I arrived at my organization to learn of the amount of staff that knew English. But I also soon discovered there is a difference between knowing and understanding a language.

Conversing and explaining myself was not a problem, but it became apparent that context was getting misunderstood or just being picked up at all. This doesn’t mean their English is insufficient, rather it’s more of a cultural difference. After all, words are just words until you place meaning behind it.

You can spend too much time in the field

I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again. Volunteering abroad is a great experience. And it’s common for participants to extend their placements or embark on multiple opportunities.

While the experiences can still be impactful and fulfilling, it’s important to know there a thing as too much field experience, especially if you’re interested in a career in those areas. Field placements are best when they’re balanced out with other work experience.  

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Charmaine Kong

A Canadian girl currently volunteering in Lima, Peru with the EQWIP HUBs project, Charmaine Kong is happy to call anywhere with a beautiful view and a soothing cup of tea home.

Website: www.wheresthecharm.com

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