Preparing Before Going Abroad

There are many NGOs and placement organizations available throughout the developing world, and the need for quality, committed volunteers is great. Volunteers will surely find a program and/or NGO that fits their skills and needs, while offering the invaluable resource of an extra set of hands. It is important to note that while within the NGOs themselves there is much local influence, the majority of volunteer placement agencies are run by North Americans or Europeans.

While the desire and drive to help the impoverished or disadvantaged is admirable, it is very important to be aware of the cultural preconceptions and prejudices associated with being a foreigner in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. At the same time, you should think about some of the preconceptions that you have about your volunteer overseas destination, and make a conscious effort to leave them behind and keep an open mind as you embrace the local country.

Travel Map with Passports Image

Tips for Embracing Local Culture

Being comfortable in foreign lands isn’t coming that comes easily to everyone, but if you’ve decided to take a volunteer trip abroad, you obviously have come cultural curiosity, and the drive to try new things.

Did you Know? While culture shock and homesickness can be overwhelming, few overseas volunteers regret sticking it out and staying put at their volunteer abroad job.

If you’re overwhelmed by exactly how best to embrace the local culture once you are abroad, there are a few basic tips that you can follow:

  • Ask questions: This sounds simple, but language barriers and even shyness could prevent you from satisfying your curiosity. But even if you’re unsure about your language abilities, don’t be afraid to simply ask “why?” if you see something happen that you don’t understand (like the way that people form lines at the grocery store, or how they pay for the bus). Even if you don’t fully get the answer, you’re still engaging, and you would be surprised at the little nuances that you can pick up before you are proficient in the local language.
  • Stay positive: Sure, this sounds more like basic life advice than anything specific to volunteer jobs abroad! But the truth is that you will probably have some set backs when you start your volunteer job. You probably will have a learning curve, and it can be difficult to not feel in control of your situation. Staying positive in this situation will not only impress your volunteer supervisor, but will help you to learn more quickly, since you’ll be open to criticism and comments from others. This will not only enrich your work experience, but affect your cultural learning as well.
  • Make a friend: While it is generally accepted that overseas volunteers fit the gregarious, outgoing personality type, many might be more content by themselves, enjoying their time abroad in a more introspective way. And while many have a great time just speaking with locals and learning about culture on their own, having a companion can really serve as a way to push your boundaries, and provide a support network that will encourage you to move outside of your comfort zone.

Quick Summary:

  • Culture shock is a natural part of traveling abroad for long periods of time.
  • Developing a social network can help offset the effects of culture shock and homesickness, as well as provide encouragement to become more involved in local culture.
  • A positive attitude goes a long way both on an off the volunteer overseas job!


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