What Do I Need to Know Before Volunteering Abroad?

With over a decade of experience facilitating Outreach Trips, Students Offering Support has received a wealth of tips and tricks from our past volunteers. This is knowledge we want to share with potential volunteers like you!

Before the Trip

Past SOS Outreach Trip participants always tell us: ? I wish I did more research!? . About the country they travelled to, about our partnering organizations, and about the experiences of past volunteers. When being a visitor in a new country it is very common to feel uniformed, especially about the history, language, and customs of the culture. In this day in age, there is no excuse to be ill prepared. With access to a wealth of resources on the internet, you can learn so much. But, it? s easier said than done. Let? s hear how a past participant made it happen:

“Going into my Outreach Trip, I wanted to make sure I would not do anything to offend my host community or organization. I was going to do my research. Two months before the trip left I was right in exam season and I didn? t know how I was going to get it done. I realized that just like studying for my exams, I could schedule in time for research. So every other day during the half hour I ate lunch, I did research about Costa Rica! I used Google to start, and got some really useful information. Pura Vida!? -SOS Outreach Trip Participant, Costa R ica, May 2014.”

They also say they wish they had done more fundraising. Upon coming home from their trip and telling their friends and family about the trip, their loved ones express the desire to contribute to their experience. Past participants are always surprised at how much their communities wanted to contribute and wish they had asked.

Volunteers travelling to Honduras from York University and volunteers travelling to Guatemala from Vancouver Island University in 2016 both did a tremendous job fundraising using bottle drives. They timed their drives to coincide with popular events around their areas, and made sure to notify homeowners in the area in advance of when they would be coming around.

Outreach Trip participants also say that they wished they had asked more questions to past SOS Outreach Trip volunteers. Asked them about what they wished they had known before going, what to pack, what to do, and what not to do. Gaining first hand knowledge is invaluable, and can ensure you do not repeat mistakes of past volunteers.

On the Trip

Past Outreach Trip participants always say that missing home is normal! When you start feeling homesick, do not keep a countdown to the day you depart. Doing so will keep you focused on leaving, and not being in the moment and focusing on overcoming your culture shock. It is common to spend the first few days of your trip homesick and you should not take those feelings as a sign that volunteering abroad isn’t a fit and go home.

Volunteers have expressed that they wished they had not been in such a rush during the trip. Don? t be preoccupied with having a packed schedule and ?seeing everything? . Your volunteer organization and host community will prepare to take you to tourist sites, but the beauty of your placement comes from the relationships you make in your immediate surroundings.

Every year there are a handful of volunteers that wish that had been more understanding of other volunteers. Being in a new country with a new culture and new customs can have significant impacts on a volunteer as they adjust. Keeping in mind that your fellow volunteers will react to these experiences differently is key when learning to work and live with others. At the end of the day, good or bad, your fellow volunteers are just like you. You are all longing to make a positive impact on yourself and in your community.
And lastly, saying goodbye. The advice we hear time and time again is to couple your goodbyes with caution. When leaving the community and volunteer placement, do not make promises you can? t keep. You must realize that when you say goodbye, it might be forever. Do not make promising you do not intend to keep.

When You’re Home

Once you come home there will 2 weeks of obligatory visits with loved ones as you tell your stories and share your pictures, and then reliving the experience will be over. It will seem like no one cares any more, but that is not the case. Having not participated on the volunteer experience your loved ones will not have the same connection to your community. That is why it is so important to stay connected. Volunteer for the partnering organization, write to community members, and find ways to stay connected to the culture of your host country Past SOS Outreach Trip participants are always looking for ways to stay involved. The hardest part of coming home is how quickly you will be in a completely different environment than you were during your placement. Finding ways to stay connected to your experience are key. Take a language course, learn to cook a traditional dish, or speak with your fellow volunteers. It is important to find ways to revisit your experience when you’re not able to be physically there.

Take time to reflect on how the many emotions you confronted on your trip have impacted you and how you will use them to better yourself. Whether in personal relationships, at home, at work, or at school, how are you going to utilize this experience? Volunteers deal with emotions like exhilaration, fear of the unknown, love, frustration, loneliness, and happiness, among others, and recognizing how you? ve grown from those experiences is crucial for personal growth

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