Every year thousands of people decide to volunteer abroad. Some go for only a week or so while others decide to do six months or an entire year. Even if you have volunteered within your country before heading abroad, it can still be a drastic change. The journey is well worth it as you will help others and grow as a person along the way, but you should get ready for certain challenges as well. Here is what to expect when volunteering abroad.
Even if you choose to volunteer in a country that is just like yours, you will still experience some type of culture shock as every country is at least slightly different. If you are from an affluent country and opt to volunteer in a third world one, you will most likely experience an even greater shock. You will notice even small differences such as whether or not cars stop for pedestrians as well as larger ones such as the overall poverty levels. The good news is that there is curve associated with culture shock and over the course of your volunteer experience, you will get used to the new culture.
However, you should keep in mind that even though you have lived in your home country your entire life, reverse culture shock is still a possibility. This means that when you return from your stay abroad (especially longer ones of six months or a year), you will have to readjust to your own culture.
Although food is a part of culture, it is also important enough to be its own category. That is because every country has access to different food items and will prepare them in different ways. You may be used to bland foods while your destination eats a lot of spicy items. Or you may be used to a diet rich in meat, but if you are visiting a poorer country, it is likely that meat will not be a big part of the diet. If you have any dietary restrictions, it is also important to keep those in mind and be sure to know how to explain them in the language of your target country. Keep in mind that some countries do not understand vegetarians or even allergies as well as others so you may need help explaining.
Another element of culture that needs to be addressed separately is clothing. While many countries have similar styles of dress, some are more conservative than others. For example, while girls may be used to wearing short shorts in warmer climates, in some countries this can lead to unwanted attention. It is important to look into typical clothing before you go so you know what to pack and be willing to adapt as well.
The most common way to volunteer abroad is through some sort of organized program and if you are doing this, you will most definitely be with other volunteers. (Even if you organize your own trip, it is likely you will be working somewhere where there are other volunteers). Your interactions with these volunteers can be just as difficult at times as the interactions with the citizens of your target country. This is especially true if you are working with an international organization as the volunteers are from all around the world. This means that instead of simply having to deal with basic culture shock (between your home country’s culture and that of your target country); you will also have to deal with cultural differences between you and other volunteers. It is important to keep an open mind as these other volunteers may end up becoming your lifelong friends.
You Will Grow
Although you probably won’t grow physically while helping in another country, you will grow emotionally and psychologically. You will learn how to deal with cultural differences as well as the shock of poverty. You will also get to see more of the world and be able to better understand your own country and culture. You may find yourself appreciating parts of your own country that you had never noticed before or even developing a more open mind in terms of what about your country could be changed.
You Will Be Appreciated
If you are going to volunteer abroad, chances are that you are doing so because you want to help others. The good news is that many people will tell you what a difference you have made. Even if it is a small difference, those whose lives you touch will be sure to let you know. Even strangers you meet and talk to will tell you they appreciate your efforts when they find out why you are in their country. While you may meet some people who think you aren’t needed, these people are rare, so try to brush them off and focus on those with a positive attitude.
Be Prepared For The Questions
Both at home (before and after volunteering) as well as in your target country, you will undoubtedly get certain questions such as: Why are you volunteering? Don’t you want to keep studying? Don’t you want to make money? Why not help closer to home? Isn’t that country dangerous? These are only a few of them, but you need to prepare yourself to answer these and similar questions, or be ready to tell people that you aren’t comfortable talking to them about it. Simply put, be ready to talk about your decision before you go and during your trip as well as your experience when you return.
You Will Be A Cultural Ambassador
Although there is no official position associated with volunteering abroad, you will be a cultural ambassador of sorts. That is because the people in your target country, especially the poorer ones, may only know about your home country from television, books or the media. There is a chance that you are one of the few people they will ever meet from your country and they will see you as a representative of the entire country. Be ready to answer questions about your country’s culture, history, food, language, education system and other things as well. It is not at all uncommon for people to ask you to compare the two countries. When you return home after volunteering, expect to do the same thing but in reverse, where you will be representing the country that you volunteered in.