Things I Never Knew About Volunteering Abroad

Lexa Pennington's picture

I stumbled onto volunteering abroad by accident when a friend recommended it to me. I had never considered it beforehand. So I entered the world of volunteering with very little information and learnt that there’s only so much research you can do. 

Things I Never Knew About Volunteering Abroad

Here are some things I discovered as I volunteered: 

Your Ideas May Really Count

I have never felt my voice being heard more than on a volunteer project. Project coordinators were actually excited to listen to any ideas and input from volunteers. If something was cheap and do-able, we started putting the ideas into practice. Generally, the local team were supportive; the only ideas I saw rejected were either too expensive or any which wouldn’t be beneficial long term.

It Will Affect Your Life 

The number one thing I never knew about volunteering abroad is that it would have such an effect on my life. Volunteering abroad has changed my life for the better—I know how clichéd that sounds, but it is true! Never have I returned from a resort holiday with a changed perspective. I usually just return with holiday blues. Whereas when I volunteered abroad, it felt like I was spring boarded on to a different path. I started thinking about different career paths that I would have never considered before.

You Need To Be A Team Player 

A lot of time spent volunteering abroad is spent in groups. I don’t know if I got lucky with the volunteer projects I went on or if the majority are like this, but there were few disagreements, considering the amount of time we spent together. We work up and ate breakfast together, travelled to the project where we worked with each other all day, travelled home and ate together, and then hung out in the evening socialising together. It’s amazing we never ran out of things to say. I can imagine if you like your own personal space it may be slightly more difficult.

Volunteers Come In All Shapes And Sizes

Ignorantly before volunteering I didn’t put much thought into who my fellow volunteers would be or what they would be like. I assumed they would be like me and be around my age. I was pleasantly surprised to see a mix of different ages, all from different backgrounds. At least they were on the project I went on, perhaps if you go with a different organisation or at a different time there would be a smaller mix in types of people. The mix of people was great—it meant there was always someone up for doing the same thing as you. If you wanted to stay up all night chatting, there were other night owls to do so with, and if you wanted to have a quiet weekend away, not at the beach or in the city, there were other volunteers who would join you and do the same.  

The Longer You Stay The More You Get Out Of It 

To get the most out of volunteering you need to stay at least a month. There is so much to do and see that it can be overwhelming to begin with; you need a week to settle in. Whenever volunteers came for less than a month or for a couple of weeks, by the time they had settled into the project and found their feet, it was time for them to turn around and leave. The only time shorter stays worked was when volunteers came focusing on one thing. 

For example, one volunteer joined the project for a week; their aim was to give worming tablets to all of the children in the local schools, a dentist decided they wanted to perform dental checks on the children and hand out toothbrushes. Both of these volunteers left with a feeling of accomplishment, but the volunteers who came for a short period of a time without a plan looked a bit swept off their feet. The first week of volunteering is usually spent finding your strengths, if you don’t already know what they are, and finding out how you want to volunteer for your time there. 

No Experience Needed

Before looking into volunteering abroad, I always assumed you would need experience to help in a real way. Such as to be a teacher over here, you have to have trained in the field. I assumed it would be the same abroad, but I was wrong. Volunteers could help however they wanted to all that was needed was a can do attitude and a willingness to get stuck in. Of course, if you wanted to help in a medical environment, some training would be needed, but this was the only one of the projects where I saw a requirement for previous experience.

Volunteering Is Tiring 

Even if only volunteering for a few hours each day, you are doing something unfamiliar, in an unfamiliar environment, with unfamiliar people. Your body will be more active, and it can be draining. Three hours of volunteer work abroad can feel more like double the number of hours back home. You may also be volunteering for longer hours, but not noticing; volunteer teachers are often responsible to plan and prepare their own lessons. It is rare to find a project where everything is done for you. It takes time in the evenings to plan lessons and head to town to purchase materials and resources. 

It Helps In Interviews

One of the most surprising things I never expected of volunteering is that it would in fact benefit my future employability. After returning home from my gap year and experiences volunteering abroad, interviews were much interesting...and perhaps even fun? I was able to speak about something I was actually passionate about and the interviewers were interested in what I did and how I helped develop a community overseas. Creating a portfolio to take to interviews can really help with this.

You Will Become A Better Person

Volunteering abroad made me change the way I see myself. I returned home with improved self-worth, a handful of new skills and much more confidence. My mental health improved greatly, studies show that helping others can actually make you feel happier and improve your well-being. Studies also show that volunteering abroad improves your self-esteem. Spending my days surrounded by people who have so little and can still find things to smile, helped me not focus on the small things in life and appreciate everything I have.

Things I Never Knew About Volunteering Abroad