Are you considering or already made the decision to volunteer abroad? The real question is are you ready to get started? Volunteering overseas is incredibly exciting but also daunting and you will have to overcome many challenges. In reward, you will be able to help a community while getting to know a culture much more in depth than you could do otherwise. But to get there, a lot of preparation is necessary; physically as well as mentally. If you have a spontaneous and adventurous personality, you probably want to ask yourself first:
Why do I have to prepare myself?
Most importantly, it will help you get the most out of your volunteer experience! But it will also help you you to avoid some of the common pitfalls of first time volunteers. There are many things to do before you can board your flight to an unknown destination, and it’s easy to lose track of tiny details that might make or break your trip. The best way to go about it, is to consider the preparation as part of your experience. So get started well in advance, and prepare as much as you can. Even if you will most likely not be able to prepare for every possible scenario, but be sure you have covered at least the following steps.
Select the right program
Be well aware of what your aim is when volunteering abroad.
- Do you want to focus purely on helping a project, or do you also want to use additional service offers such as safaris or day trips?
- Do you prefer working for a grassroots project or with a large experienced organisation?
- Is it important to you to find an ethical correct project?
There are thousands of volunteer projects available and each will give you a completely different experience; with some of them being more helpful to the societies they claim to help than others. In any case, always connect with past volunteers. This will give you the best possible insight into what to expect.
Besides your aim, you will also need to decide where to volunteer and what to do there. Concerning the task, I can only advise you to be brutally honest with yourself, and only apply to projects that fit your skill set. As much as it sounds appealing to you to help children in an orphanage, if you have zero prior experience with children that are possibly traumatised and live under difficult conditions, you will most likely do more harm than good.
Concerning the country, go with your instinct. What kind of culture are you interested in? Where can you imagine living for a while. Nevertheless consider
- Climate – Can you bear hot, humid places?
- Culture – Will you be ok confirming with the cultural norms?
- Diet – Do you have special diary requirements? A person with a food allergies or a strict vegan diet might face problems in countries of which you don't speak the local language.
Do your homework
Before you go, you should become familiar with the work you’ll be doing. If you know beforehand, you can efficiently prepare and maybe bring valuable materials to your project. Team Social Work Co-Founder Felix worked as a tennis coach in Namibia - he asked for and obtained second hand tennis racquets before his trip, which the airline allowed him to transport to Namibia without paying for extra luggage.
Furthermore, you should spend some time studying the local culture and customs of your destination culture. If you work in a rural area, you probably won’t need dress shirts, even if you are a teacher, and independent on where you go you should bring clothes to cover up with. If you are a female, make sure to double check which clothes are appropriate, and probably leave tank tops and short skirts at home. You might be representing a volunteer organisation, and the last thing you want to do is offend the local population. Things that are considered normal at home might be very offensive at your destination, such as pointing at another person with your finger or wearing shoes indoors. If you have specific questions, make sure to ask your organisation.
Maybe most importantly, find out which services your program offers:
- Do you need to arrange your visa?
- Do you need to organise your own flight?
- Do you need to organise transport to the project location within the country?
- Do you need to arrange your own accommodation or will you be sleeping in a provided hostel, host stay, etc?
Get In The Right Mindset
Be prepared that if it’s your first time traveling to your country of choice, you will most likely have a culture shock. In addition, your contribution to the project will most likely not have immediately visible effects. Change takes time - often years, so there is a great chance that the problems you encounter will still be there when you leave. This doesn’t mean that your help is useless, but that all you can do is assist the project in its long-term vision.
The best way to approach this is to mentally prepare yourself. Say goodbye to Western standards of living and remove your rose-tinted glasses.
You might be placed without running water, so pack items to cope with this. Hand sanitisers, baby wipes or tissues will always come in handy. Also, inform your family and friends that you will most likely not be available online, as most places won’t provide internet, some won’t even have electricity. Go old school and pack things such as books, playing cards and a flashlight.
Last but not least - don’t underestimate the importance of a smile or other acts of kindness. They can have a bigger impact than you might realise.
Be sure you are sufficiently covered
These are some important questions to ask yourself before leaving abroad:
- Medication – Do you need any vaccinations or Malaria tablets? Is it wise to bring some basic medication when you travel? If so, which ones?
Even if you feel like you have sufficient knowledge on this topic, be sure and visit a travel doctor to ask him the aforementioned questions. You are volunteering abroad, so the chances are you will be staying in a 2nd or 3rd world country. This means that your chances of contracting an illness unknown to your home country increases while your healthcare options decrease. Further, some countries even require you to provide proof that you have received certain vaccinations.
Don’t let this stop you from going abroad, just make sure you take healthy precautions.
- Emergency numbers – Do you know what numbers you need to call should anything happen?
This requires two absolutely essential steps. First of all, get in touch with your project and make sure they inform you sufficiently about their safety steps. How far is the next hospital away, how have they handled incidents in the past etc. You are paying for their support, make sure to utilise it. Secondly, and probably the most important point on this list, GET TRAVEL INSURANCE.
Yes, it is expensive and yes, there is a chance you might not need it, but do you really want to take that risk? Take it from a fellow traveler, when you are somewhere in Asia and you hurt yourself, you want to be safe rather than sorry, not to mention the rather high potential for food poisoning, diarrhoea and other unfortunate travel companions you might encounter. And aside from being sick, travel insurance will also cover you for other things that can go wrong, such as flight cancelation and stolen luggage.
Steffi Kohl is Head of Marketing & PR for Team Social Work - The Volunteer Platform. She is an avid German traveller and a passionate advocate for volunteering abroad. In her current position she supports Team Social Work, a Social Enterprise that aims to create transparency in the volunteer market by providing a platform on which social projects and volunteers can connect.