Tag Archives: volunteering abroad

Things to Consider Before Voluneering Abroad

Volunteering can be a rewarding addition to your life, whether at home or abroad.  However, an unfamiliar language, foreign setting, presence of extreme need and an attempt to set up your volunteering before you leave home can leave youe vulnerable.  You want to make sure that everyone involved benefits from the experience, so a little research (like talking to former volunteers) is imperative. 

  • Cost.  I’m not saying you should never pay to volunteer, but I have a strict policy that I will never pay someone for the priviledge to work for them.  If they are honestly providing me with something, however, I’m willing to at least check it out.  So what are you getting for your money?  Often it’s lodging, some meals, or even round-trip airfare.  Figure out what exactly “on-site support” means, and whether it is worth it to you.  Sometimes, the cheapest thing and the easiest thing isn’t the same, so figure out your priorities and pick an organization that matches yours.
  • Location.  Let’s face it, not everyone is cut out for every place, climate or situation on earth.  Feel free to test yourself and expand your horizons, but don’t set yourself up to fail. 
  • Why are you doing this?  If you don’t know the point of your trip as well as individual projects, it’s harder to decide the best way to do them.  Try to learn the overaching as well as immediate goals of the organization as well as your career as a volunteer. 
  • Are you taking away the job of a local?  This is a big one.  In Cuba, for example, volunteering or working as a foreigner is almost impossible.  Doing so erodes the state’s ability to employ the population, which is a huge part of the contract between the state and it’s people in a Socialist country. 
  • Are you providing a necessary service?  It’s easy sometimes to just go volunteer somewhere because it’s pretty, or you’ll get some great photo ops.  But there are so many places in people in need, wouldn’t it be a shame to be less useful than you could be, or in a situation where your particular skill set isn’t necessary?
  • Who is benefitting from that service?  Sometimes it’s easy to accidentally “help out” people who don’t really need it, and who are abusing your generosity.  It’s hard to understand what poverty or luxury look like in a new place, and it is sometimes easy to be tricked.  Also, never forget that everyone you meet has a stake in what you do and who you help.  It can be hard to face, but you are a commodity.  Be mindful of it and you can save yourself from being conned or used.
  • Local involvement.  This is very important if you want your time as a volunteer to be worthwhile and important to anyone other than you.  We call this local buy-in, and without it a project is often useless
  • Knowledge of the local culture.  Do you need to know the language in this particular environment?  Are there any dos or don’ts that you need to know, such as dress code and norms of behavior for women?  Are there religious practices that may be startling to you that you should learn about in advance?  How close do people stand when they talk, and how loud do they speak? 
  • How much are you willing to learn?  If you’re just going to teach English to children and not looking to learn yourself, for example, you may want to reconsider.  In order for this to be a worthwhile experience, you should be learning from the locals and from the community you’re in.  They have a way of doing things, and they have it for a reason.  It may not be in line with your morals, it may not be your usual way, and it may not even be the best way, but if you understand the way they do things and why, you’ll be better able to help them change if that ends up being necessary.  And if it turns out they have a better way, maybe you can help some people change back home!

Good luck, and happy volunteering!  Remember to listen and keep an open mind, but be aware of your impact as much as possible.

Only a Soph-o-more

Often on school trips, both at high school and university level, the students are treated as unskilled laborours.  This is true with the Dialogue of Civilizations programs, Alternative Spring Break, and pretty much any trip that involves volunteering. 

What is up with that?

College students are NOT unskilled.  Especially if you take into account where in the world they are sent to volunteer.  When they are working with 1st graders in Benin, they have worlds more education. 

Why is it that so many of out volunteering abroad programs only use people to build schools, paint community centers and tear down old houses?  Just because you’re not a doctor or an engineer doesn’t mean you are entirely without skill.  And really, don’t even get me started on the mistakes made by EWB–every engineer I know informs me that no no, they make totally good decisions about culture, cuz they like have someone who knows about that and stuff.  Yeah, high school Spanish doesn’t really cut it on the cultural awareness and general-development-aid-savvy scale. 

Anyway: back to us “unskilled” laborours here.  We’re not unskilled.  If you look at the overall global population, having a high school diploma makes you one of the lucky few.  Several semesters of college?  It’s rare throughout the world, and totally unheard of for many populations. 

Now, all this doesn’t mean we’re smarter than them, better at whatever we do than them, and more equipped to understand their culture than them, whoever “they” may be.  It just means that the aggregate knowledge of our affluent lives and relatively good education systems means we should be shooting higher.  It also means there’s a good chance that we geeky political junkies are perhaps better fit to policy decisions than breaking large rocks, and could do far greater good from a desk than a hot field.  Yes, it is appealing to go somewhere and see children in rags and have them smile for your digital camera.  It feels great when they love you, and to use your hands to create something tangible. 

But are we really all in college so we can be day-laborers?  Or are we just assuaging our own guilt?  Or perhaps even being misused? 

On that note, I HAVE been involved in several different volunteering abroad opportunities, and I’m looking to get into another one.  What’re your thoughts?  Any dos or don’ts?  Any questions you would ask before volunteering?  I’m looking at you, yovos and Allyson Goldhagen!

Meet, Plan Go! Boston

This was my first blogger-in-person type deal, and it was definitely interesting.  I really loved being in a room full of people who care so much about travel and value it so highly, instead of always being “the weird one” or “the one who travels.”

I brought my roommate Alex with me, because she loves to travel (Egypt, Syria) and is really interested in teaching English abroad after she graduates in December.  On the whole, the place read more like an alcoholics anonymous meeting than anything, which was fine because we’re addicts, too.  I was waiting for someone to say, “Hi, my name is Adventurous Kate, and I quit my job today so I can travel.”  (In reality, someone else did this for her.)  I was waiting for the group to say, “Hi, Kate,” but instead we all just clapped for her.   Oddly enough, Kate is from my hometown and was in the Drama club with my older brother, and she was friends with a lot of my friendsolder sisters.

I was predisposed to liking Rob Verger because of his blurb on the Meet Plan Go site, but meeting him only made me like him more.  His travel philosophy of staying in one place for a while and really getting to know the culture (including language!) gels with my own views, and it’s a subject I so rarely hear travel bloggers covering.  He was also super helpful to Alex, because one of his major experiences was with Teaching Abroad.

Lillie Marshall (I can’t help but think of How I Met Your Mother) showed her schoolteacher tendencies by quieting chatty bloggers with Teacher Voice, and wore a great dress from Ghana.

I loved getting to hear from David Kramer, who has been very focused on Latin America.  His wife is Colombian, so they’re raising their daughter as a bilingual, bicultural traveler (how cool is that?!)  It was also funny to see how even though all of these people are considered big, expert travelers, they were only experts on one aspect or type of travel, and were often novices on others.  Like David, who immediately admited to never having been anywhere but the Americas, and said he welcomed the other travelers’ advice.  He also works in the non-profit sector and got his start teaching English abroad, so I was pretty interested in that.

Ryan Larkin rounded out the group as one of the youngest on the panel.  He has worked at EF, did ASB (Alternative Spring Break) and most notably volunteered at Edge of Seven in Nepal.  Working amongst the locals, and under their direction, he helped build a school with minimal equipment for two grueling but rewarding weeks.  The longer you stay the better the deal ends up being, and it’s definitely something I would consider doing for a few months.

Meeting Amanda Pressner was great, and I felt more like I was getting drinks with a friend than talking to an incredibly succesful RTW travel blogger who also happens to have co-authored a book.  She was humble and realistic about travel, blogging and the book industry, and seemed genuinely interested in talking to and helping out me and my roommate.  Even though I have no desire to travel in the manner she did, The Lost Girls was the first travel blog I read, and I devoured the whole of the archives in a month or so.  It was just great to meet one of the first people who made me think that there’s a whole world of this out there.

They did a great job selecting panelists tghat covered the spectrum.  Solo travel, couple travel, women’s travel, travel with kids, RTW, regional, vegan and vegetarian, travel with friends, quitting your job, working remotely, freelancing, doing a program, taking a leave of absence, they pretty much covered it all.  I’m definitely more excited now about my upcoming travel and blogging plans, and I’m looking forward to more events like this one.  And can I just say that it was wicked awesome to have a Boston-centric event.  Between travel and all being from here, it felt like we all had a lot of common language.

Why on earth don’t I have pictures?  Because I’m a rookie, that’s why.  Thanks to all involved in the planning, it was a great time!  Hope to see you all again soon!