How to Deal with Challenges While Volunteering Abroad
Ask anyone who’s just returning from a volunteer trip abroad and they’ll probably tell you all about the hospitality of their host community, new insights gained, or anecdotes of new friends made abroad. You might even hear phrases like “experience of a lifetime” or “can’t wait to go back next year”.
But even though most international volunteers tend to remember the best moments of their trip, it doesn’t mean that they haven’t been down a very bumpy road.
Especially if you’ve never travelled in a developing country before your first days as a volunteer may be a rude awakening.
Thinking about potential hurdles beforehand can help you decide whether a volunteer trip is right for you. It will equip you to sort out solutions to potential problems before they even come up, and ultimately spare you from a world of stress.
Identify the Potential Challenges You Might Face
As a first-time volunteer, or even a seasoned volunteering veteran heading off to a new region to work on a new project, you’ll almost certainly run into a few stumbling blocks along the way.
Often, tripping over one or two of these stumbling blocks is one of the most educational and enlightening parts of your experience abroad. But a bit of awareness and planning ahead of time can keep that tripping to a minimum.
Before leaving on your trip, take some time to reflect on potential struggles you might face while volunteering.
Here are some of the most common:
Sometimes hopping on a flight and planting yourself halfway across the globe can be a shock for your body. It’ll take you some time to adjust physically to your new surroundings, and it won’t help that you’ll probably need to do so in a place where nothing seems to work quite the way you’re used to.
As you plan your volunteer trip, think what potential physical and health challenges you might encounter, like these:
- Meeting dietary requirements: If you’re vegetarian, diabetic, have food allergies, etc., a combination of language barriers and local food availability could present challenges for meeting your dietary needs while abroad.
- Lack of infrastructure: You won’t always have access to facilities like clinics and hospitals. In many remote or underdeveloped areas, lack of services like water treatment or indoor plumbing can present other health and hygiene concerns.
- Basic accommodation: Don’t count on central heating or air conditioning while you’re volunteering abroad: your accommodation will likely have some degree of exposure to the elements, flora and fauna.
- Heat, thirst, and sunstroke: Working all day under a tropical sun has its consequences for your body. Without proper rest and hydration, a long day outdoors can turn into an even longer one recovering in bed.
- Being on the go all day: Taking a break from your 9-5 office job to do manual labour and continuous activity can make for a shocking physical transition, and can leave you feeling exhausted your first few days on the ground.
International volunteers too often spend all their time thinking about how to take care of their physical health that they forget that volunteering abroad is mentally and emotionally taxing as well.
Mentally prepare yourself by reflecting on some of the things you might see and experience on the ground:
- Witnessing extreme poverty, malnutrition, or illness: Being surrounded by others who have much less opportunity than you can be like a big guilt-inducing slap to the face. Begging, child labour, and extreme inequality might be visible in your community from day one, laying a solid foundation for a case of culture shock.
- Cultural differences for marginalised groups: Women, ethnic and religious minorities, the poor, and other groups may at times be openly disdained of or demeaned right before your eyes. Witnessing such treatment, and especially being unable to help, can be a troubling experience for many.
- Religious differences: Whether or not you’re religious, there’s a good chance that volunteering abroad will land you somewhere people pray and practice their faith much differently than what you’re used to. Such clashes in beliefs and value systems can be unsettling, and often give the impression that people are more different from you than they actually are.
- Loneliness and homesickness: For first-timers and veteran travellers alike, the right cocktail of distance and culture shock can make the perfect recipe for a heavy case of homesickness or a feeling of social and cultural isolation.
- Lack of access to typical coping strategies: If you normally reach for a glass of wine or a cigarette to de-stress, you may find yourself in need of a new coping mechanism in areas where these or other vices aren’t easily available.
- Leaving new friends and coming home:The biggest emotional challenge, and the one that takes most volunteers by surprise—it’s hard not to get attached to places and faces after spending a few months in their company, and leaving can be harder than coming in the first place.
Even with all your aches and pains and the emotional burden of taking it all in at once, communication barriers will often be the most frustrating and stressful. You’ll board your plane in a place with a familiar culture, language, and customs, and by the time you land all of that and more will be different without so much as a word of explanation.
- Language barriers: Simply not being able to understand or make yourself understood can be one of the most stressful experiences of any trip abroad, and even more so when you’re trying to work with a community that’s depending on you to understand and meet their needs.
- Cultural differences in communication: Some places, looking someone in the eye is a sign of honesty, and in others a sign of rudeness. From everyday gestures to answering simple yes-or-no questions, you’ll quickly find that there’s no such thing as ‘normal’ communication, and struggling to keep up with the local norms will often be frustrating.
- Timekeeping and working culture: Sometimes two o’clock means two o’clock, and others it might mean something more vague or nothing at all. Punctuality and time sensibility, working culture, and other aspects of communication you may have always seen as straightforward will suddenly seem more grey area than black or white.
So How Do You Deal With Them?
Each volunteer experience is different—you may face all of these problems, none of them, or something totally different in the volunteer programme you choose.
While you’re exploring programme options, keep these physical, emotional, and communicative challenges in mind, and use that foreknowledge to solve problems before they ever start.
Rest assured, because there are simple solutions to all of these and most other potential challenges you’ll face while volunteering abroad. So read on for my easy solutions…
10 Tips to Overcome the Challenges of Volunteering Abroad
Smooth sailing on your volunteer trip is mostly a matter of recognising potential pitfalls and doing a bit of research and mental preparation ahead of time. Forewarned is the best way to be when it comes to volunteering abroad.
So follow these ten tips for predicting the hurdles that lay in your path and springing smoothly over them as they crop up.
1. Avoid Being a “Voluntourist”: Do Your Research
Ask the right questions before ever booking your trip:
Does the organisation work to further the UN Sustainable Development Goals?
How long has it been running?
Does it have clearly stated objectives, and what kind of demonstrable progress has it made towards those objectives?
If you choose the right volunteer programme and organisation, most of your potential concerns will be taken care of before you ever step off the plane.
A good volunteer organisation will offer support for issues like physical health and coping with culture shock. Not only that, but the good they’re doing in the community should offset some of the difficult things you’ll witness.
2. Lean on Your Programme Leaders and Fellow Volunteers for Support
Always reach out to your project coordinator when you’re experiencing issues or dissatisfied with something, and try to find a sense of community and support among your fellow volunteers.
Relate to the other volunteers about the challenges you’re facing, but strive to do so proactively, rather than simply complaining.
3. Get Healthy Before You Leave
See your doctor for a general check-up before leaving for your trip, and discuss any particular concerns you may have during your volunteer experience.
Be sure to update all the necessary vaccinations, stock up on any medications you’ll need.
You should also start following a healthy diet and getting regular physical activity to strengthen your body before leaving.
4. Learn Some of the Local Language, Culture, and Customs
You probably won’t learn an entire language in the weeks leading up to your volunteer trip, but even a couple dozen everyday words and phrases will help for a smoother transition.
It will also help in showing basic respect to your new neighbours.
Read up on customs and daily practices that might differ from your own, and be aware of the most important cultural norms and how to avoid violating them.
5. Make Plans for Communicating With Loved Ones
To combat feelings of homesickness and isolation, make a plan for staying in touch abroad.
There may not be internet access in the community where you’re volunteering, but most often an urban centre nearby will have internet cafes or other options for a quick video chat or email.
6. Volunteer for the Right Reasons
Take some time to seriously reflect on your motivations and qualifications before embarking on your trip.
Why are you going?
If reasons like beefing up your CV or taking an exotic holiday are the first to come to mind, you may be in it for the wrong reasons.
Volunteering with the desire to participate in and empower a community with your skills will keep you focused on what matters and assure that your volunteer experience is beneficial not just for you but also for your host community.
7. Be Modest
Avoid hero syndrome: you’re not here to save the helpless, but rather to empower a community of intelligent, proud, innovative and self-contained individuals in need of nothing more than opportunity and solidarity.
Approaching your host community as a humble equal should encourage local people to open up to and work with you.
This makes for a more engaged volunteer experience in which you participate in a community rather than remaining on its margins.
8. Keep an Open Mind and Reserve Judgement
Try to strip your mind of assumptions about what people or situations will be like, and fight the urge to label cultural habits as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
Instead, live in the moment, and let yourself be surprised by the generosity and openness with which your host community receives you.
9. Manage Your Own Expectations
Rather than to fantasise about what the destination or your project might be like, throw yourself into some in-depth research about the country, its background, history and politics.
Let go of any preconceived notions that might hold you back, and work to align your expectations with the real situation you’ll be living in.
10. Realise That You Can’t Save the Whole World…
…but you can make a difference for a small group of people.
When faced with overwhelming challenges like systemic poverty, it’s important to first accept that you won’t ‘fix’ them by yourself in a few months.
What you will do by working on the right project with the right programme, is to improve life in some small way in your host community, as well as moving them closer to sustainable solutions to systemic problems.
Need More Advice?
Don’t expect your volunteer trip to run like a carefully planned package vacation, but at the same time, don’t stress about all the little things that could possibly go wrong.
At some point during your stay you’ll probably find yourself lost in a bus station, banging your head against a language barrier, or just plain homesick.
Remember that these and the other challenges you’ll face abroad fall far short of outweighing the benefits you’ll gain from your experience.
Most important of all is to choose the right volunteer programme, prepare for potential pitfalls beforehand, and head to your destination with a positive attitude aimed at helping a community in need.
Got questions? Get in touch with us any time by calling us at +44 1635 285666, go to our enquiries page, or leave a comment below.