Hurdling Through The Difficulties Of Volunteering AbroadDecember 10, 2012
Volunteering abroad will likely be one of the best experiences of your life—you’ll meet new people, learn new skills, and be able to push the limits of your worldview. However, volunteering abroad isn’t all fun and games. A number of issues, some of which you can control and some of which you cannot, could pop up at any time. You need to be prepared to work with anything that might happen during your trip—and that's why we're here to help!
How To Deal When Your Volunteer Team Is Difficult
Chances are you won't be able to pick the team you’ll volunteer abroad with. Even if you can though, it’s sometimes surprising how different a relationship with one person can be depending on whether you’re working together or if you’re just friends. Team relationships can be difficult—anyone knows that—and the stakes are especially high when you're all under high levels of stress to accomplish a shared goal. However, teamwork is often necessary for a volunteer abroad project to achieve its full potential.
If you encounter problems with your volunteer abroad team, your first resource is a good supervisor who can assist you with these issues. Your coordinator has likely worked with many volunteer abroad teams before and is equipped to help manage the team so that you’re productive.
It’s usually not a good idea to confront another member of your volunteer team without speaking to your supervisor first—you must, no matter what, work hard to communicate any issues to your higher-ups so that they’re aware of your problem and able to help your team succeed. If you’re unable to resolve the issue with the help of your supervisor, you may want to get in touch with your original point of contact with the volunteer organization.
How To Deal When Your Volunteer Project Is Difficult
Simply put, volunteer abroad projects can be difficult. Oftentimes the program doesn’t quite turn out exactly like we expected it to—though of course that can be part of the fun. But what if the project is so far off your expected mark that you question why you applied in the first place?
Suppose you wanted to work with grassland conservation and ended up instead volunteering with children to teach them conservation methods. It may be useful, but the work isn't what you hoped to be focusing on. This is a valid concern and something that you need to communicate to your supervisors. Volunteer abroad programs are founded to help the community, but they also hope to create a meaningful experience for you. If you feel that this is not happening, you must be willing to communicate this to your volunteer supervisor—in some cases, the volunteer group might not be clear enough in communicating the scope of its project, and in other cases, the volunteer may have had expectations that exceeded the scope.
If you feel that your project isn't the best use of your skills, let your supervisor know. However, also be aware that there is plenty of not-so-fun, mundane work that volunteer abroad projects must accomplish. You won't be able to spend every day relocating sea turtle nests—the paperwork has to be done too. Of course your volunteer group doesn’t want to take you for granted, and they will to the best of their abilities use your skills to further the overall goals of their program.
How To Deal When Your Community Placement Is Difficult
It may not be comfortable to hear, but sometimes the community that you're volunteering in isn't exactly as excited about your being there as you are. This can be hard—after all, when you've flown across multiple continents to try and make something happen, it's hard to take the process slowly. Many volunteers who travel abroad are surprised at just how long it takes for a community to trust them—sometimes even up to a year. They get frustrated, after months of idealistic planning, to have to spend such a long time sipping tea with the locals.
However, make sure you put yourself in their shoes before you give up or become disheartened. While your project it is very important for you, it could mean a semi-permanent change in their community. Think about just how you would feel it a complete stranger came to your neighborhood wanting to change the way things work: you'd definitely want to trust them first.
Learning to interact with a host community is one of the difficult gifts of volunteering abroad. It isn't easy, but it can be one of the most rewarding parts of your journey! Just persevere, be willing to sit and talk for hours with people, and let the members of the community get to know you. Once they are able to trust you, change will happen much more easily.
Volunteering abroad isn't all about the photo opps. Real work must be done, and it doesn't come about very easily. However, if you are willing to stick through the difficult times, it will almost always be worth it in the end. You will learn, your community will learn, and your life will be forever changed. All you have to do is keep an open mind, a busy schedule, and an understanding mindset.
Photo courtesy of Kyle Akerboom, Creative Commons.