Wednesday, 11 November 2015

10 Tips for a Successful Volunteer Abroad Experience (all the rest)

I realized I will literally never get around to writing about each tip indivdually now that I'm on the move...maybe that's for the best! Less rambling.
Without further ado, tips #3-#10.

3.Come prepared

Since you've taken the earlier tips into account and you've done your homework, you will know what your volunteering position will entail! This will help you know how to prepare. Do as much as you can ahead of time, ie: if you're teaching, research lesson plans and teaching tips. If you're working with kids, look up games that are easy to teach across the language barrier. Bring as much material as you can- its surprisingly difficult to find things once you are abroad!

4. Learn the language

I made the mistake of thinking I would just learn the basic phrases once I arrived, and then wished I had made the effort to work on them before! Learning the language is a great way to connect with the locals and people you come in contact with, and it also shows a willingness to embrace their culture and put yourself on their level, rather than expecting everyone to cater to you. People appreciate the effort and are usually patient and willng to engage with you even if your pronunciation is atrocious! My taxi drivers were far friendlier with me when I started using my "taxi Thai". It was very, very basic, but it was better than hopping in and expecting them to understand English. Also, making a bit of a fool of myself encouraged the women I worked with because they saw that I struggled to learn their language as much as they struggled to learn English!

5. Stay positive

No matter how many times you travel, there is always going to be some element of culture shock when you volunteer, and there are many times when you might feel a bit despairing about the effectiveness of your volunteer efforts. Remember that its completely normal to go through a phase of anxiety, frustration, and even hostility towards the country, city, and people that seem so strange and sometimes "backwards". Try to stay positive and remember that you came to experience the world in a new way, that things are "different", but not "wrong". Eventually you will start to understand a new normal, and the new place will not seem so threatening. 

6. Be flexible and patient

Closely tied to staying positive is the concious effort to be flexible and patient. Volunteering abroad is rarely what we expect it to be, and it rarely runs in a way that Westerners are used to. Often it seems inefficient, disorganized, and occasionally chaotic! Remember that not all cultures run on tight schedules- I've often been in situations where I was waiting around, or thought "there has been loads of time to prepare for this, why is no one ready yet?". Also, you may be asked to do things you didn't sign up for- rather than resist something unexpected, just embrace the new adventure! Rather than getting frustrated because something is not what you think it should be, strive to be open to something new. Having a sense of humor and going with the flow will bring down unnecessary stress levels, and enhance your volunteer experience. 

7. Expect to be uncomfortable

I think our expectations of our volunteer experiences are often quite vague, but we kind of think that it will be all warm-fuzzies and simple, straight-forward work. This usually not the case. Entering a new culture and a new volunteer situation both fall outside most of our comfort zones, just like going to a new school or starting a new job. There are new social rules to learn and adapt to, and it can be exhausting and uncomfortable until you "settle in". Understand that its going to be a while before you adapt to a new normal, and make friends.

8. Bring Items to Share

I always forget this! Bring some small souveniers from home, postcards of your hometown, photos of your family, things like that. Locals are curious about your life, and its also nice to have something to give away as a thank-you or parting gift. Gifts of candy and money are discouraged for children. I have some Canada flag pencils that I have been giving away to some of the children I have met. Its a small thing, but useful, and the kids are thrilled to get them!

9. Communicate with the staff regularly

Its important to keep the lines of communication open with the staff of your volunteering agency. They usually have a pretty good idea of the things you will struggle with, they are great sources of information for tips and tricks on local life and travel, and they can help solve the small day to day problems and explain cultural differences. If you don't ask or don't inform them of the issues that arise, they can't do their job. Don't expect them to be mind-readers, but do expect them to want to help! 

10. Stay Humble

I will be the first to admit, sometimes when I think of volunteering abroad I get the mental image of the smiling, fulfilled white person surrounded by the grateful, adoring non-white children...arrogant, right? Totally. Yet we've all seen the photos, and they lurk in our subconscious when we sign up for these things. We think we are going to save the world by "selflessly" sacrificing our time and money. We think that because we have paid for this experience, we should be thanked and admired by everyone. They should be in awe of our generosity. And I don't think we often realize that this is hidden in our thought processes until we realize just how useless we are, and how little we can do! I have thought, and have heard said by others, "I feel like it doesn't matter if I'm here or not. I feel like no one cares if I show up. I don't feel like I'm making a difference". (This usually is quite an overwhelming experience within the first week or two).

On one hand, this is a little bit true! As newbies to the culture and language, we can be fairly uselss! But on the other hand, volunteering is what you bring to it. If you come in knowing that you may not save the world, but you might make a small positive difference in a couple lives, you will have a much better experience! Staying humble might mean realizing that its up to you to find ways to make a difference...its not going to just magically happen by showing up. It might not change the entire world...but it might change one person's world, and that's pretty awesome.

I highly reccommend volunteering abroad (but volunteering at home would be cool too!), and I think its a valuable experience that really brings a lot of perspective to our lives. Its my hope that these tips will help you prepare for and enjoy a future volunteer trip!
If you have already been volunteering abroad, I would love to hear what you think...what was your experience, and would these tips have been helpful to you?

1 comment:

netablogs said...

Those are great points, Jill! I see a book in your future! ;)