Volunteering overseas can be a challenging and rewarding experience. I volunteered in Naples, Italy, for almost two months. Here are seven things I learned while doing so!
Preparation is Essential
To get the most out of volunteering overseas, you have to go in prepared. Apart from all the material preparation that you obviously have to do (what you’re going to be taking over), you have to set up your mindset for the experience that is to come. More on mindset matters later.
It’s always a smart move to go in with as much knowledge as possible. To start learning the language of whatever country you’re going to will give you a leg-up once you’re there. You’ll be able to jump into things a little faster, like shopping for instance. You’ll also want to read up about the country. Being knowledgeable about the place you’ll be living in is reason enough, but there are several advantages.
Knowing cultural norms will mean you won’t accidentally act in a way that’ll be perceived as offensive. You’ll also have destinations that you’ll want to visit pre-planned, as to not waste any time while over there. Ultimately, you’ll get the most of it if you understand the context that the country exists in, and you’ll come away with more experience and knowledge.
You’ll Feel in Over Your Head At First
During the first week or so you may feel some dread, even terror. Volunteering overseas can be a big undertaking, especially if it’s your first time, as it was for me. It was my first time going abroad by myself, so that first week, in particular, could get rough sometimes. Not to sound like an ingrate. I was in Naples for crying out loud! I was getting to experience Europe! Being out there by myself was part of the joy. But there was a part of me that became terribly afraid.
I was a stranger in a strange land. It’s especially easy to feel this way if you haven’t established any connections with the other volunteers. There’ll always be other people wherever you go, whatever you’re doing. So the key to lessening the feelings of isolation is fairly simple. Get talking to people. It may seem daunting at first, depending on your personality type, but once you make friends your comfortability level will go way up.
It’s one of the Best Ways to Experience a Country
Volunteering overseas is a great way to experience a country. For one, you don’t have to concern yourself with accommodation, as that’s often provided. As mentioned before, you’ll always have other people you can hang out and go out with, so the social aspect is kinda laid out for you. So you’ll have a constant base of operations to go out and explore from, and people that you can do it with. Also, you’ll feel fulfilled because you’re doing more than just taking a holiday.
It’s also a great way to immerse yourself in the culture of the country. I was teaching English in a high school so I got to talk to several classes each week. In these conversations I was able to pick up a fair bit about their lives, generally speaking. To see the differences and similarities between my culture and theirs in such a fun and informal way was a treat.
Treat it Like a Job
It may be volunteering but you’ll get the most out of it if you treat it like a job. The sense of structure and consistency that it gives you will help with any feelings of homesickness. Having to go to a place and doing a thing each weekday will also help with the comfortability and familiarity that you’ll acquire. It certainly helped me when I needed an anchor of some sort.
Travel as Much as You Can
As I said before, while volunteering overseas you’ll have a constant base of operations that you’ll more than likely have paid for upfront. That leaves you free to travel to nearby cities or even countries in your spare time. You never know when you’ll be back there so make the most of it and go to as many places as you can. On that note…
Time Will Fly
When I was having my little panic attack in the first week, doing another 6 weeks of that seemed unconscionable. How on earth am I going to survive this? Like I said, it gets easier, until you look back and ask yourself “where did all the time go?” I’d recommend volunteering overseas for a chunky length of time. You’ll get to know people and the country better that way. Indelible memories will be forged.
You May Fall in Love
No matter the amount of time you spend volunteering overseas, you’re bound to get attached in some way. To the city, the people, the whole experience in general. As I said, being in Naples was my first time volunteering abroad, so of course, it’s very special to me. The place that took your volunteering virginity, so to speak, will always be special.
You may find that everything becomes heightened when you’re over there. You may develop feelings for someone – a local, a fellow volunteer, whoever. It happening in these circumstances will, at least in my experience, make the whole thing seem bigger than it is. And don’t get me wrong, it’ll most likely be a lovely experience, but it can only be temporary. You’ll have to say goodbye to people, even it’s just friends that you’ve made. In this way, it’s a good microcosm of life.