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Photo: Courtesy of author

Many volunteers have harbored secret dreams of what the headlines will say when they return from their heroic adventures:

“Volunteer saves rural village from mudslide.”

“Philanthropist banishes malaria from Africa.”

“Educated Westerner teaches hundreds of poor children to read.”

And below the front-page title, a black and white photograph that perfectly captures a tired smile, tousled hair, and a few beads of sweat earned valiantly in the battle against all that is wrong in the world.

There are many excellent reasons to volunteer, but in order to truly make the most of your experience, you must carefully and honestly assess your expectations. Holding onto an unrealistic fantasy, no matter how big or small, can only lead to disenchantment.

Here are a few common expectations best avoided:

Expectation 1: Immediate, world-changing results

While blogs and photo-sharing websites are a modern blessing for the avid traveler, they may have the unfortunate side effect of putting undue pressure on many volunteers to show the immediate results of their labor.

Not every moment of a volunteer experience is blog, picture, or Nobel Prize worthy. If you find yourself huddled over a computer in a humid, overcrowded office writing reports for your host organization, that doesn’t mean you aren’t accomplishing anything.

While the world likes to glorify those with the sentimental pictures and heroic stories, some of the most successful volunteers are the ones who contribute to a long-term project, the effects of which may not be seen until long after the volunteer has left.

Volunteering isn’t about fixing the world’s problems in less than a year or receiving recognition from everyone who reads your web page. It’s about contributing to sustainable projects and making positive adjustments in your own life so that your work will continue to change the world–and you– long after your temporary volunteer post has finished.

Photo: Courtesy of author

Expectation 2: Organized work

The number of times I played solitaire the first few weeks I spent volunteering registers easily in the three-digit zone.

This was before I learned an all-important lesson: sometimes, volunteers have to invent their own work.

Photo: Courtesy of author

For any number of reasons, your temporary employers might not know what to do with you. Without some serious initiative on your part, you may end up twiddling your thumbs and drinking 200 cups of herbal tea a day. Be clear with your organization about what you are and aren’t capable of doing. It might take some work on your part to ensure that their plan includes reasonable goals and concrete tasks.

Expectation 3: Everybody will like you

A few months is a short period of time to form deep, lasting relationships. Many volunteers, discouraged by overwhelming cultural barriers, never connect with more than a few people. Even the volunteers who seem to become beloved local heroes often struggle with feelings of being misunderstood and lonely.

Don’t be discouraged if you haven’t made 10 new best friends by week two, and please don’t give up cross-cultural relationships altogether and hide away in the nearest expat club. Bonding only with fellow travelers deprives you of much of the vulnerability that makes the volunteer experience so powerful.

Expectation 4: Rapid language fluency

After spending eight years studying Spanish, I expected to arrive in Peru and sound like a native within a matter of weeks. Instead, I was the laughingstock of Lima for months because of my verbal blunders.

Some people who volunteer can pick up languages in a few days flat, and I will spend all of eternity shaking a jealous fist at them, but they are the exception, not the rule. Don’t become discouraged when language acquisition takes time.

Expectation 5: You will find yourself

Culture shock, loneliness, language frustration, and stomach bugs… this is not the time to figure out who you are. You need to already have at least a basic self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses, your techniques for coping with challenges, and your tolerance for difficulties before you arrive.

Who you are at home is still who you are in any other country.

The only baggage you should be bringing on the trip is that which can be stored below the plane. Those who try to sneak too many negative emotions and insecurities through customs only end up leaving bitter and disappointed.

Community Connection:

Volunteer experiences can be immensely rewarding, but are occasionally disappointing. How have you had to adjust your expectations about yourself, your work, and other people while volunteering abroad? Share your tips below.

About The Author

Alix Farr

Alix is from the Washington, D.C. area but has spent the last 2 years living and working in Lima, Peru, as an English teacher and as a Marketing and PR coordinator for a volunteer organization called Nexos Voluntarios. She has traveled to over 30 countries, seeking to ensure that her number of countries visited is always greater than her age.

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  • Tim Taylor

    Awesome article!

    Alix sounds like a really wise world-traveller, and with a bit of abroad experience under my own belt (currently finishing up a year living and studying in Cairo, Egypt), I think she hit the nail on the head with all her main points.

    Nice work!

  • Benjamin

    Some of the best advice a traveler of any kind could get!

  • Abbie

    That’s great advice – I’m volunteering abroad in July so this info. was very helpful for me!

  • Hal

    Right on, Alix. I just finished up my first long-term volunteer experience, and I think you’ve really summed it up here. Especially feelin’ ya on #2 and #4.

    All you potential volunteers out there, don’t read this and get discouraged! Instead, take what Alix has to say to heart and you’ll likely have an even better time during your assignment.

  • Pingback: 5 Things You Should Know Before Joining the Peace Corps

  • Bernie Allen

    I’m currently reading this article from my home in the jungle town of Bandarban, close to the Bangladesh – Burmese border, just over one year into a two year placement. Personally my greatest challenge to my tolerance levels has to be my living conditions. Washing in a bowl never can be anything apart from that, but the joy of integrating into the local community more than offsets any inconvenience.

    While periods of isolation from a western culture can create loneliness, Internet access (even erratic) offers a means to re-establish connection. The trick is not to depend or crave that which will be in abundance again soon, and to appreciate you’ll not always have exposure to your host culture.

  • Radhika Raman

    How I wish I read this article before going to Mexico! I was there for a relatively short period of time (only two months), but I am seriously considering returning to the same place where I volunteered for the upcoming summer. I managed to learn all of these things through trial and error.

    I find that simply taking a deep breath and stepping back during my most frustrating moments helped me so much more. And “getting it done” isn’t so important in the grand scheme of things. The relationships and exchanges I had were what changed me as a person.

    The depressing (but true) truth of short-term volunteering abroad is that many times, it seems to boost your own personal satisfaction more than it helps the people you intend to serve. (My university facilitated my volunteering, so it was definitely not the Peace Corps.)

  • Deepali Patil

    nice information for newer ngos.

  • Salewa O

    So True… So True.. ALL Volunteers abroad should read this..

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