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Volunteer Work Abroad

How to Select the Perfect Volunteer Abroad Project

By Christine Victorino

The new century has brought with it unprecedented opportunities to break down barriers and explore the complexity of our world-whether as tourists, Internet surfers, or as businesspeople signing international trade agreements. The most meaningful way to increase international understanding is through authentic people-to-people interactions of the kind this magazine has promoted for nearly 25 years. And of all the ways for people to work together around the world, international volunteer programs are the most unique.

Volunteer opportunities are available in every part of the world, for short and long periods and in many different fields of work. Students, mid-career professionals, community activists, artists, families, retirees, and just about anyone can find the perfect volunteer position abroad. Just ask yourself:

  •  Why do you want to volunteer abroad?
  •  What skills or knowledge can you contribute?
  •  What do you hope to gain?
  •  How much time are you willing to commit?
  •  What part of the world do you wish to work in?

Volunteers play an invaluable role in community development around the world. Evaluate your motivations for going abroad and the impact of your presence in foreign countries. It is important to remember that a personally enriching volunteer experience should also provide benefit to the community served.

Before going abroad, volunteers develop their knowledge and skills at school or work. Some skills-such as teaching English as a second language, housing construction, nursing, or technical computer expertise-are often easy to match with the needs of the overseas community. At the very least, you must possess the open-mindedness, enthusiasm, and flexibility to adapt to a new environment. If you are still unsure about how you will be able to contribute, volunteer at home first. You might be surprised at how much you have to offer.

Experienced volunteers repeatedly say that regardless of what they contributed, they received far more in return. Volunteering abroad allows you the incredible experience of integrating into a community different from your own, and you can make a positive contribution both to the community and to your own personal development.Volunteers say they gain a better sense of themselves, greater self-confidence, and a deeper understanding of their place in an interdependent global community. Some international volunteers learn new languages, find a different career path, and even make a life-long commitment to international issues.

The longer you are able to commit, the more you will gain and the more you will contribute. For most of us, however, a short volunteer vacation is all that time permits, and first-time volunteers usually find that a short-term experience-such as a work camp, short-term technical assignment, a reality tour-is sufficient. Longer programs offer more time to feel comfortable and to integrate into a new setting.

In selecting the part of the world in which to volunteer, a host of issues-safety concerns, medical needs, language barriers, living situation, culture shock, etc.-will require careful consideration and research. Program staff from the sponsoring organization should be able to help you work through most of your concerns, either through printed information materials, telephone consultations, or predeparture training.

Finally, find out about the relationship between your volunteer organization and the overseas country. Organizations with well-established partnerships with the community overseas provide more productive volunteer experiences.

By volunteering abroad, individuals will face significant challenges that often cause them to question their own values and cultural assumptions. This is the time when tremendous learning and often profound personal transformation occurs. What better reason is there to travel?

CHRISTINE VICTORINO, a former volunteer in Sri Lanka, Costa Rica and India, was Director of the International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA), a network of nonprofit organizations that send volunteers around the world.

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