Getting Serious About Volunteering Abroad: How To Educate Yourself About The MovementDecember 07, 2012
It’s easy to take the volunteer abroad industry at face value. After all, how complicated can it be? You find a cause, find a program, and book your flight, right? Depending on how familiar you are, it may be surprising that the volunteer abroad industry is extremely complex, ripe with discussion and debate as it struggles to provide for the needs of the communities and volunteers. There are field experts, best practices, and even plenty of no-nos. But how do you educate yourself about a field so vast and occasionally nuanced?
The volunteer abroad industry operates in an interesting place somewhere between philanthropy, service learning, and international development. This is great—all of the industries have a chance to interact and figure out the best way for volunteering abroad to operate.
However, this is sometimes tricky because it requires us to be knowledgeable about a variety of subjects to grasp all of the ins and outs of volunteering abroad. Volunteer abroad industry leaders typically are those who either research volunteering abroad, own a company or organization devoted to volunteering abroad, or are involved in international development.
Does all of this sound a bit hard to digest? Don’t worry if it does—there are many resources devoted to volunteering abroad that will help you become pretty knowledgeable yourself. Still, I have a few tips to help you navigate this complex, thought-provoking, and altogether wonderful industry.
Find The Right Blogs
Reading industry blogs is probably the quickest, easiest way to get acquainted with what is going on in the volunteer abroad world right now. There are many volunteer abroad-specific blogs that are comprehensive and accessible for someone new to the industry. For starters, try:
It may be worth it for you to read both newer posts from these blogs and some of the early ones. The volunteer abroad industry has grown and evolved over the years, but it’s great to get a sense of where we started.
Follow The Cool Kids
Like there are blogs in the volunteer abroad industry, there are also plenty of experts, many of whom write the blogs I listed above. Still, these are great people to rely on for up-to-date and informed information about volunteering abroad and the changes in the industry. Many of these folks are active on Twitter, which makes them easy to follow for great news and information. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but try following these gals to start:
- Daniela Papi (Lessons I Learned/PEPY Ride)
- Katie Boyer (Go Overseas)
- Sallie Grayson (People and Places)
- Sarah Palmer Vandenberg (Volunteer Global/Frayed Passport)
Also be sure to follow the volunteer abroad organizations themselves, as they’re usually headed by people who are very informed about and interested in the industry!
Get Some Experience
Although research is great, nothing compares to the actual experience of volunteering abroad. While you definitely want to know what you’re getting into before you leave, your opinion on the volunteer abroad industry really isn’t fully formed until you do it yourself.
The more experience you have the better—and be sure to try for a range of volunteer experiences. While you're abroad, be sure to think about the research you've done. Was your project beneficial to the community? Did you have a good point of contact? Did you serve with skills that weren't otherwise present in the community that you were helping? You must be willing to apply your research to your actual experience to validate the value of what you've learned.
In the end, you’re going to form an opinion, whether good or bad—and that’s totally okay! The volunteer abroad world isn’t just an industry, but a sort of research-based science as well. In order for the industry to grow, we need to have plenty of people with well-informed, diverse opinions. Don’t be afraid to jump into the conversation even if you haven’t been volunteering for decades. We need everyone’s voices to make the volunteering abroad industry as successful as it can be.
Photo courtesy of Trees for the Future, Creative Commons.