I’ve long since been an advocate that volunteering abroad is one of the best ways to travel – not only are there a large number of placement opportunities which enable volunteers to travel and live overseas for free, but it genuinely does shape you as a person. And it’s not a cliché to say so.
You would think volunteering abroad should be about the desire to help others and the want to contribute to creating a better world, however I believe these are both merely byproducts of the personal development which takes center stage as the most beneficial aspect of volunteerism.
And perhaps this is selfish – volunteering for the personal benefits it brings, however I truly believe that international volunteerism has the potential to change people for the better, which will in turn promote change in the world.
Volunteering is Fatal to Prejudice, Bigotry and Narrow Mindedness
The famous Mark Twain quote is that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and if this is true for travel, it is even more so for international volunteerism.
During time spent volunteering in Kenya, we were placed into groups of 50, each group with a mix of nationalities from all over the world. During the day we worked side by side to complete our various projects, whether this was building a bus shelter, visiting locals schools, or planting trees, and each evening we were all equally in charge of cooking group rations and eating together. This was more of a challenge than you would ever believe, and on that first night no-one ate.
With clashing cultures, language barriers, and immense hunger, tempers boiled high as 50 individuals attempted to have their say about how the group would be cooking/eating. Opinions on standards of hygiene and sanitation varied, and ingredients those from Western nations considered waste, (like bone), were thrown back into pots as key cooking ingredients by those from third world nations.
There was no open communication, only 50 individuals trying to charge, and it was an absolute mess. Each of us quickly realized that in order to eat, communication was vital, and while it took a few days, it wasn’t long before everyone was working together, strategically divvying up cooking ingredients, and then enjoying a dinner each evening with samples of cuisine from multiple nations.
By learning about other people and the way they work, you are also learning about yourself. You gain vital people skills and learn how to communicate with those outside your normal circles. You learn that there are many approaches to life, and no one approach will ever be supreme.
When you’re on the ground volunteering, you become fully immersed into a new culture. You realize that people from all over the world are the same, and that other people, other races and other voices all have integrity, and all have the same claim to the world that you do.
Volunteering, and interaction with members of multiple ethnicities, teaches you that you are no better than another person merely because they are Muslim. You are no better than another person simply because they are black.
Whether or not the decision was conscious or not, you will return home with a more open mind, and with a new appreciation of cultural diversity.
Volunteering Broadens Your World View
For all of the reasons above, volunteering abroad forces you to broaden your world view, and threatens the preconceived notions and stereotypes of other cultures and countries.
After having been on the ground and experienced places firsthand, you will understand things more clearly, and revel in this new found knowledge. You will be less likely to believe bias media coverage and less vulnerable to propaganda.
International volunteerism broadens your world view and stimulates your intellectual growth.
Volunteering Humbles You
Volunteering abroad opens your eyes to how large the world truly is, and how many people co-exist on this earth. We’re one of 6 BILLION people, and you realize quite quickly that the world doesn’t revolve around you.
This much needed reality check continues to keep me grounded and down to earth. Volunteerism forces you to realize what small part in this world you actually occupy, but also offers much needed perspective on what is truly important in life.
After you volunteer you realize just how many comforts we take for granted in the Western world, and this realization, the ability to appreciate the small things in life and not confuse “want” with “need”, is the beginning of true happiness.
Not once in my life have I experienced true hunger. Not once in my life have I experienced homelessness of true need. Not once in my life have I been truly helpless or lost a loved one to a preventable disease. Growing up I had an education, access to healthcare, and I have a wonderful family who loves and supports me.
You realize quite quickly that your “problems” really aren’t that big on the true scale of things. Volunteering humbles you.
Volunteering abroad leads to learning and development about other cultures and countries, however more importantly, leads to the learning and development of yourself.
When you volunteer it’s impossible to return home the same. The exposure to different places, people and customs makes this so. So even if you believe the world is in no need of saving, perhaps you yourself are.
Volunteer for UNICEF, volunteer for the environment; there are plenty of good causes calling for volunteers abroad. This most rewarding experience is the best kind of personal development you will ever find, and with any luck you’ll make a positive impact on the world at the same time.