October 5, 2010

Top 5 (Random) Tips for International Volunteers

If you’ve neen reading this blog, hopefully you’ve gotten some really useful information about volunteering abroad.

We’ve covered visas, volunteer organizations, resume tips…and of course there is more to come! There will always be some little things, little pieces of advice, that doesn’t necessarily fall into any category or section. That’s what this post is for! I’ve spoken to some of my veteran volunteer friends to come up with the top 5 things that people always forget to tell you before you volunteer abroad. These are the unlikely, random and interesting pieces of advice that you can only really get from someone who has volunteered abroad in the past. I hope that you find it useful!

1) Write things down. It may seem like everyone who goes anywhere has a blog or twitter account, and I’m not necessarily advocating for you to turn yourself into a novelist or master writer just to document your trip. However, keeping a journal, or even just writing captions for your photos (remember to take photos) will help you not only think of things to share with your friends and family when you get home, but will help you remember not only what you did, but how you felt. What most people remark about the volunteer abroad experience is that they

2) Buy good pants. And a good backpack. This is definitely a more random piece of advice, but we live and learn. Volunteers are often called to do unexpected things for their jobs – these could involve mud, dust, children, animals, floors, cars…pretty much anything. The easiest way to be prepared for anything your international volunteer organization might throw at you? With a good pair of pants. I’m not kidding. Head out to an outdoor store or army navy store (or any other place that sells durable clothing) and invest in a solid pair of pants, in a versatile color. You’ll thank me later. The other big investment you should make is your backpack (or messenger bags, or whatever is comfortable for you), which you will mot likely use both on a daily basis and for weekend trips. You’ll want a bag that can handle both of those tasks, is comfortable to carry, waterproof and…probably good looking. Don’t be afraid to take some time and research the best items to buy for your trip, especially for things that you will use everyday. Which brings me to….

3) Pack light! This could seem counterintuitive, since you’ll be leaving home for a while and will probably want as many comforts with you as possible. But you’d be surprised at how many people tell me that they just used the same stuff over and over again. Remember those pants that you bought? They should be durable enough to wear a few times a week. Bring basics. Plan to buy some souvenirs and pick things us while you are overseas. The only exception might be personal items (like medicines, or a particular kind of toothpaste) which could potentially be more expensive (especially if it has to be imported) in your host country. My other big piece of packing advice is to start early. Make a list of what you feel are your essentials. Take everything that you want to bring with you and lay it out on your bed, or wherever you are packing. Then take out half of the stuff, which you probably don’t need. Look at the items you have left, and take out half again, this time of stuff you think you need but that you can definitely live without. Pack the rest. I promise, not having that specific pair of jeans is going to see very trivial once you start your volunteer job.

4) Make a budget. For everything. I already mentioned “budgeting” in terms of packing, but it is also beneficial to do this in other areas, including money and time.

As an international volunteer, you absolutely must be flexible with your work and free time in order to experience as much as possible. But to help you keep your sanity, you should do this within some sort of plan that makes sense for you. So you have a set amount of money to spend while you are abroad. Make sure that you account for it down to the day ($X for weekend travel, Y number of trips, $Z for souvenirs, $XX for food), and make sure to budget for emergencies (they happen) and extras (that weekend trip that wasn’t in the plan that you just can’t pass up). Check in on your finances weekly and stay on schedule. Do this with your time as well. Figure out in advance how much time you want to spend out of town, at work, sleeping, exploring and keep track. This will help you to manage work commitments with leisure activities, and it is just as easy as writing things down (see #1) and making sure you aren’t going over your allotted time for any one activity.

5) Never assume. Most people that are leaving for a big trip abroad are going to daydream about where they are going, what they will be doing and will read up on their host country and organization. These are all great, natural things to do. But one thing that you’ll want to avoid is turning those daydreams into assumptions about the work you are going to do and the people that you are going to meet. When you show up on your first day of work, you’ll want to ask questions and be ready for things to be different than you imagined – they usually are, and this is a good thing. Leaving your assumptions at the door makes you a more flexible volunteer, and will ultimately enrich your experience.

Please feel free to leave your tips for volunteers in the comments!

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