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Preparing For Your First Volunteering Project Abroad

November 19, 2015

Preparing For Your First Volunteering Project Abroad

Heading out for your first volunteering project abroad is an exciting time, which many volunteers look forward to with mounting anticipation for months. However, it can also be daunting [1] - particularly as you may never have done something so independent or far-flung before. Knowing quite how to prepare can be a tricky task - so here are a few tips to help you on your way.

Do Some Research

Assuming that you have already chosen a project and your fundraising is proceeding according to plan, you’ll probably have a reasonable idea of where you’ll be going and what you’ll be doing - but it’s nonetheless worth learning as much as you can about the place you’ll be going to. Little details can sometimes be the most important, as it’s the little differences rather than the big ones which will disorient you the most. Familiarize yourself with the currency [2], learn about the cuisine, look up the customs, make a note of which side of the road is driven upon - that kind of thing. If you’re heading away for a long time to an unfamiliar location, it’s likely that homesickness will strike at some point. Knowing what to expect, and immersing yourself in the culture and customs before you head off will help you a lot [3]. While no amount of research can really totally prepare you for volunteering in a new country, knowing what you’re heading for will bolster your confidence and help you to feel less alienated in the first few days.

Get Your Flights At The Right Time

Some volunteer projects may come with flights thrown in, but for others you will have to make your own way to your destination. It’s always worth getting your flights pinned down as early as possible. There are several reasons for this [4]. Flights tend to be cheaper the earlier you book them, and you’ll have a big weight off your mind. You may also find that flights are less expensive if you book them after midnight on a weekday [5], or in January - when many airlines hold winter sales.

Familiarize Yourself With The Work

There are all kinds of volunteer programs worldwide, encompassing a lot of work styles - and the concept is expanding first [6]. You may have chosen your program because you know that you’re cut out for the kind of work it offers. Alternatively, you may have chosen it because you want to visit the location, or are really passionate about the project (or a blend of all of these and more). If you’re not already reasonably familiar with the kind of work you’ll be doing, it’s probably a good idea to learn a bit about it, and maybe get some practice in if possible. This will give you something of a head start when it comes to embarking upon your volunteer project. If you can’t get any practical experience, then try to build up a reasonable base of theoretical knowledge. Talking to former volunteers, or getting in touch with the organization and people you’ll be working with can be a great way to prepare yourself for the work ahead!

Prepare For Culture Shock

No matter how closely you research, or how well in advance you get your packing and travel documents together, you’re still likely to experience a degree of culture shock if you’re a novice traveller. Unfortunately, America is quite an insular nation [7] which all too often does not prepare its citizens for life abroad - unlike members of most other nations, we are woefully ill-informed about and unaccustomed to encountering other cultures. This may translate into culture shock when you reach your destination - but don’t worry! If you’re prepared for this sensation, you’ll find it much easier to ride it out. Try to translate your culture shock into culture curiosity and you’ll soon find that you start enjoying the experience of saturating yourself in a foreign culture.

[1] Amanda, “http://www.dangerous-business.com/2012/02/dont-be-a-scaredy-cat-just-travel/ ”, A Dangerous Group, Feb 2012

[2] Travel Money, “http://www.compareni.com/money/travel-money.htm

[3] Natalie Southwick, “http://www.gooverseas.com/blog/ways-reduce-homesickness-abroad”, Go Overseas, Dec 2014

[4] ABTA, “http://abta.com/go-travel/before-you-travel/travel-tips/booking-early

[5] Rachel Dixon, “http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2012/jan/06/cheap-long-haul-flights-experts”, The Guardian, Jan 2012

[6] Carrie Kahn, “http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2014/07/31/336600290/as-volunteerism-explodes-in-popularity-whos-it-helping-most”, NPR, Jul 2013

[7] Derrick Z Jackson, “http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2005/04/29/the_insular_american/”, Boston.com, Apr 2005