Five Expectations to Avoid Before Volunteering Abroad

by Alix Farr Apr 28, 2009

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.

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