So you’ve made the decision to give back and travel solo! You should be proud of yourself for taking this big step and getting outside of your comfort zone to pursue a greater cause.
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In order to make a real impact on your volunteer work abroad, I’ve gathered up some tips to help you:
1. Give yourself time to adjust & keep an open mind
At first, you may feel a bit overwhelmed with the initial culture shock of your new environment. The unfamiliar sights, smells, and sounds of hearing someone speak a foreign language, along with the pace of the city, the temperature, and even reading a map may be confusing at first! Give yourself a couple of days, a week, or even a couple weeks to adapt and adjust to your new surroundings. It took me about a week to start to feel somewhat comfortable on my first volunteer trip abroad. And I’ve lost count on the number of times I got confused trying to figure out directions on a map in certain cities! Some people adapt quicker and others may take a little time. Regardless of however long it may take, always go at your own pace.
Clear your mind from any preconceptions you may have about a country, city, or its people. When travelling, the worst thing you can do is close off your mind and reject the vibrant culture and way of life of the locals. Open your eyes to new perspectives and ways of living, it will enrich you!
Immerse yourself in the culture and talk to the locals. This will help you make a bigger impact through your volunteer work abroad because you’ll have gained more knowledge and understanding about the way of life and the culture of the country you’re living in.
2. Do your research on the culture & volunteer organization
Dig deeper and do some in-depth research of the organization that you’ll be volunteering with. Find out their objectives and goals, learn about any past and current projects they’re working on, read up on the bios of staff & board members, and research to see if there is anything urgent they need help with right away. Take notes on your findings and assess your own skills. Ask yourself this question: how can I apply my skills in order to help the organization reach its goals? Before you start your first day of work, you’ll already have some knowledge of the organization, and in turn this will help you make a bigger impact through your volunteer work. Remember, you get out what you put in! (Read more: “9 Important Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Volunteer Program“)
Always do your research about the culture and customs before departing to your destination (download sheet below to help you to get started on your research).
Learn some basic language skills (download free language apps like Duolingo) and get familiar with the new city you’re in by exploring with your fellow volunteers (I suggest using Google maps offline to help you navigate around the city). One of the main reasons as to why I encourage people to volunteer on their first solo trip abroad, is that being around other people who can relate to your situation will make you feel less lonely and will help you integrate into your new surroundings a lot faster! (read more: “How to get over your fears of travelling alone by volunteering abroad”)
3. Build friendships with the locals and other volunteers (bring some gifts that represent your country!)
Build friendships with other volunteers, including ones that are not in your program. You’ve been placed to live together under one roof to make the transitioning process a lot easier, so get to know them! Travelling alone will help you make friends a lot faster and being in an environment full of solo travellers will definitely help! You’ll be sharing some of your most memorable experiences together with people from all around the world. Be open-minded and befriend everyone, no matter what age or stage in life they may be in.
Befriend locals. I always like to pack gifts that represent my home country (Canada, in my case) to bring with me overseas to give to the hosts and/or the coordinators that I’ll be working with. It’s a nice gesture to represent the country you’re from and also a great way to break the ice and start a conversation with the people you meet.
4. Take Initiative
As with any job, take initiative and put in the effort to make a real impact through your volunteer work abroad. Don’t just sit around and wait around for work to be given to you. You may encounter days where a lot of help will be needed and other days where it may be a bit slow. Just because you initially signed up for a certain role does not mean you should limit yourself to only those responsibilities. Observe, take notes, and try to come up with some solutions to add value where you can. After all, you’ve travelled all this way to gain this experience, so make the most of it! Get creative, organize field trips (if allowed) and come up with ways to integrate your own culture with theirs.
Raising money for any non-profit organization is a crucial part of keeping it sustained. If you wish to make an impact through your volunteer work abroad by providing some funding, I suggest setting up a GoFundMe account to ask for donations. You can also help to raise funds by collecting in-kind donations (collecting items), hosting a fundraising event, and/or collecting donations in lieu of presents (I do this every year on my birthday – instead of presents, I ask for donations for my chosen charity and cause). Your generous and kind gesture will be met with overwhelming gratitude and appreciation! You’ll be able to witness first-hand just how much of an impact you’ll be making through your volunteer work abroad.