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.
Such an interesting post! What you have found volunteering, I have learned from living abroad-teaching English as a Foreign Language for 25 years on and off. You learn very quickly that your way is in the minority and that you are very blessed!
Thanks Amy! So glad you enjoyed and could relate to the post. I would love to spend some time teaching English as a Foreign Language – from everything Ive heard it sounds like an equally as amazing experience, and I’m so glad it’s given you everything I have taken from volunteering.
Thanks for stopping by!
I love this – it’s so important to give back, and grow in the process.
Thanks Jessie – I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. It really is important to combine both!
Love this. Hope my kids will experience a lot of this growing up! Great post and inspiration.
Thanks Sarah! So glad you enjoyed the post. I hope your kids see the opportunity for similar experiences also.
Your passion for helping others is inspiring. I have never volunteered overseas, but I could see how enlightening this could be and how it takes lessons one learns from travel to an even higher place.
Thankyou Ted! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. And it truly is an enlightening experience. I havent learned a lot about myself through these efforts and am so incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity.
Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts, loved the post. I’ll be joining a group in Siem Reap next month for a short volunteering stint and am excited about it!
Thanks Dariel – all the best with your trip to Siem Reap; I’m sure the experience will be amazing for you! Happy travels!
Loved reading this post! Volunteering abroad really is a unique and humbling experience. Thanks for sharing this bit of inspiration!
Thanks Mary! So glad you enjoyed the post and that you can relate. Volunteering is the best thing which has happened to me :)
So true Meg. I do think it can be an amazing, life-changing experience. National service used to be compulsory until not that long ago here in Italy, I do think it should have been replaced with opportunities to volunteer abroad.
That’s a brilliant approach – making some kind of community or international service a compulsory part of national law. Can you imagine how much better off the world at large would be if everyone got out there and could experience it first hand?!
I spent some time volunteering in Kenya as well! It was an incredible experience, and you definitely describe it extremely well. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything! Thank you for sharing :)
So glad you enjoyed your time volunteering in Kenya also – it’s one of my fondest memories, and the lessons I learned here have definitely changed me and shaped me into the person I am proud to be today :)
Woot to volunteering! So glad you enjoyed the article!
We’re about to spend some time volunteering in Thailand and I’m so excited. I know that a lot of it will be hard (and heartbreaking) but it’s hard not to feel the pull to help out, especially after a country has treated you so well.
Thanks for the inspiration!
Thanks Claire! So glad you enjoyed the post – excited to hear you’re headed to Thailand, I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful experience overall. Volunteering can definitely be hard at times, though I truly believe it does change you for the better, and can completely alter your perspectives.
Travel safe :)
Very cool post! I have had some similar experiences of being humbled and having my perspective radically transformed by volunteering in Latin America.
But I have also noticed that there can be an attitude that Westerners are saviors and those in third-world countries are victims in need of our help. What do you do to get away from this attitude when you volunteer abroad?
So glad you enjoyed the post & could relate to the different experiences also. Volunteering really does give you that humbling perspective!!
I agree, there are definitely those who travel with the intent to “save” which is sad as I don’t know that the project will end up being mutually beneficial when you travel in that regard. I believe you need to volunteer alongside the local community, and the minute you start thinking you’re above them then the project unfortunately starts to lose value because you’re there more for your own self satisfaction which is really quite selfish.
I do think however that these perceptions are starting to change with the growth of the movement pushing for ethical volunteerism. And I think the best way to get away from this attitude of “saving a victim” is to only pursue ethical volunteerism. I did an interview with Volunteer Latin America on the Importance of Ethical Volunteering, and I think when a project is constructed in a way to be mutually beneficial you stamp out that mindset.
Awesome article. I love that Mark Twain quote too :) I’ve been volunteering for over 10 years now and it’s so true – it’s an extremely humbling experience. I wouldn’t know myself the way I do without it. Outside of that, I love experiencing all the different cultures of the world. My next stop is Peru and I can’t wait! Thanks for sharing!
Hi Chad, thanks for sharing your experiences – fantastic to hear from a fellow volunteer! So glad you enjoyed the post – have a wonderful upcoming trip to Peru!
How can I find a volunteer experience that doesn’t cost me money? Or something for about a week?
Hi Kristen, check out a network called Help Exchange (https://www.helpx.net/) – a classifieds style list of work exchange projects available around the world, which are often free to join and provide board in exchange for a few hours of your hard work per day.
Another classifieds-style site is Work Away (https://www.workaway.info/) Together with Help Exchange, these are good places to start when you want a nice, local place to stay; and to make an impact on a grassroots level, with all of your time and effort going directly to bolstering local workers and families.
Alternatively you can look into not-for-profits such as THISWORLDEXISTS – http://www.thisworldexists.org/ and Trek to Teach (http://trektoteach.org/); or even larger NGOs like CARE or UNDP; https://www.care.org.au/ and http://www.undp.org/
Hope that helps! Let us know if you have any further questions :)
Quite an interesting writeup about Voluntourism. While travellers have different motivations to take up volunteering like giving back, engaging with cultural diversity or even altruism, Voluntourism as a trend, is slowly loosing its charm, and rather getting monetised by the travel companies. To get a true volunteering experience, I feel that travellers should, shun the websites, and look for opportunities, after reaching the destination, and choose, which activity will help in their enhancement.
Glad you enjoyed the post Arnav. Yes, unfortunately with the increased interest in international volunteering, there are companies who are jumping onboard and prioritizing profit over sustainability and positive impact. Which is why it’s definitely important to make sure that any project you undertake is an ethical one.
Interesting approach to take re reach the destination and then choose grassroots organizations to volunteer with. Would definitely have to put yourself out there to meet the right people and ensure there are in fact opportunities, and I think the same vetting process would have to apply in terms of choosing something which was making a sustainable long term impact. But cool food for thought. Thanks!
If you’re interested, we published a post earlier in the year about how to be an ethical volunteer: https://www.mappingmegan.com/how-to-be-an-ethical-volunteer/
It is an very informative article and acted as an eye opener , there are numerous NGO striving hard to achieve harmony via limited resources .My friend went for a voluntary tour this summer to Africa along with an NGO , she describes the tour as heart wrenching to see so much suffering and how people from all backgrounds collaborated to contribute their bit , it is known as Mission Humanitaire ,those who want to take peek can visit the website
Thanks for sharing Matthew, I’m glad to hear that your friend could contribute, but yes it can definitely be a heart wrenching experience to witness first hand how much suffering there truly is in the world. Definitely brings us very quickly down to earth.
Hi Meg, loved reading your post! I just made a volunteer blog as well, and would love to connect! :) I have personally done many projects.
You can read helpful articles about what it was like to volunteer with wildlife here (biology field research projects in particular) – julialesel.com/blog
Hi Julia, thanks for reading and sharing your blog, lovely to connect with a fellow volunteer! I’ll check out some of your articles :)
Thanks for reading!
Loved reading your blog Meg! Don Bosco India started its volunteer tourism program fairly recently.
I will be pleased if you can read and suggest here.
Thanks for reading Manish, so glad you enjoyed the post :) Thanks for the heads up on Don Bosco’s new program in India. I’ll have to keep that in mind when we manage our next trip.
If you would like to discuss a content collaboration promoting the programs feel free to send me an email to email@example.com and I would be happy to send over our partnership options :)