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Volunteer abroad

Janelle Vreeland

What you need to know when volunteering abroad

Volunteering abroad is a noble venture and a big decision that requires forethought. Whether you’re going for a two-week medical volunteer stint administering vaccines, or thinking of committing to two years in the Peace Corps, there are a number of questions to ask yourself before you hop on the plane.

#1: Is the volunteer program reputable?

You are likely traveling overseas with the aid of an NGO. If it is your first time visiting this particular country, or your first time working with volunteer coordinators, it is important that you do your research. You should be able to contact former volunteers, view pictures and read a concrete mission statement and financial analysis. A bit of Googling is a great first step to find out information about the organization.

#2: Do you have enough money?

Though most volunteer programs provide an estimated budget for your volunteer work, including program fees, housing costs and additional expenses, it is always a good idea to have more money than you need. The cost of living may have increased, you may have to return home early, or you may choose to stay on longer. The last thing you want is to be stuck overseas without sufficient funds.

#3: Do you possess the right skills?

Many volunteer abroad organizations are flexible when it comes to their requirements. However, some roles are highly specialized and require expert experience. When sending in your application, be honest about the skills you possess.

#4: Are your intentions pure?

Examining your intentions to volunteer is an extremely important aspect to consider. Are you volunteering to fluff your resume? Maybe you’re looking for recognition from others? You’ll most likely have a fulfilling experience if your intention to volunteer is to help people and make a positive difference.

#5: Are your expectations realistic?

Your intentions may be pure, but how realistic are your expectations? Do you think that volunteering at an English school in Ghana will lead you to save all the children of Africa? Or that teaching Indian women handicraft skills will save them all from a life of poverty? A healthy dose of reality combined with optimism is the best approach.

#6: Does the work environment suit you?

If your normal work involves interacting with people all day, you may be unhappy doing paperwork in an NGO office. If you spend most of your time indoors, you might quickly tire of building houses or planting crops. Being in an unsuitable alien environment will only exacerbate your anxiety and prevent you from doing the best volunteer work you can.

#7: Have you researched the country?

Aside from the information your host NGO gives you, a bit of independent research will go a long way in your overall level of satisfaction. It’s important to arm yourself with knowledge regarding cultural etiquette, the country’s current political situation, and its internal and external history.

#8: Are you emotionally mature?

On your volunteer abroad trip, you are going to witness some harsh realities. You may be confronted with poverty, abused children, unfair social structures and a host of other societal ailments. To be most effective, you’ll need to be emotionally solid.

#9: Are you high maintenance?

It’s likely that your new accommodation will be less than glamorous and your food choices limited. You may have to share a cold shower with 20 other people, combat mosquitoes at night or deal with unbearable heat with no air conditioning. Will you be able to work through these minor inconveniences?

#10: Are you prone to homesickness?

A full volunteer work schedule may not allow you the time to spend three hours on a video call with your boyfriend at home or the ability to receive texts from your friends on your iPhone. Some people find being overseas for an extended period of time away from loved ones unbearable. You won’t be a successful volunteer if you’re wallowing in depression due to homesickness.

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