Coming Home After Volunteering Overseas
Surviving the Transition and Staying Involved
The fast pace of life back home can be overwhelming, and staying involved globally can be difficult once you are back to the financial realities of life in the USA.
From interviews with hundreds of international volunteers, as well as our own sometimes rocky re-entry experiences, we have pulled together some tips for staying sane and staying involved when you come home.
1. Realize the Transition May Be Hard. Allow yourself time to process your overseas experiences and re-adjust to life at home. The longer you were overseas and the more culturally immersed you were, the harder the re-entry process will be. Keeping a journal and making a scrapbook while your memories are fresh can help you through the reverse culture shock experience. Recognize your emotional vulnerability and avoid making major life decisions until you feel grounded. Do what you have to do to maintain-or regain-spiritual balance: go for long walks, meditate, or practice the rituals of your faith or tradition.
2. Create a Support System. Seek out people with whom you can discuss your experiences. Be aware that not everyone will want to hear your stories or appreciate the ways you have changed while overseas. Try to identify one or two friends who can relate to your experience and really want to listen to you and support you in the transition.
3. Stay Connected. Maintain contact with friends overseas. If you were overseas with an organization, take advantage of opportunities to meet people who will be going to the region where you work. Try to identify ways to build community with those who share your interest in the region from which you have returned. For example, if you have just returned from Central America, find out about opportunities to teach English to immigrants from the area you left.
4. Continue to Seek Knowledge. Many people return from overseas with more questions than answers. If you have returned from a low-income country, take the time to educate yourself about the root causes of the "underdevelopment" and poverty you may have experienced. Start a book discussion group to explore the history of the area where you worked or traveled, or take a class to study the literature from that region. As global news coverage is notoriously weak in North America, seek alternative sources of information: newspaper web sites in the country where you lived, magazines like this one or World Press Review and the BBC On Line.
5. Get Involved with Advocacy or Solidarity Work. Join a network of people working on sustainable development or global justice issues. You can help yourself while you help others by getting involved in campaigns to end hunger and land mines, cancel debt and reform the World Bank, promote grassroots development, or address the AIDS crisis.
6. Share Your Story Publicly. Public education is the basis of most social change. Use your status as an "instant expert" to make presentations to schools, religious institutions, universities, businesses, volunteer clubs, and the media.
7. Volunteer Locally. Recognize the similarities between the problems you found overseas and those in your own community. Apply the ideas and strategies you learned overseas to local issues. Get involved with a local school, health clinic, or refugee resettlement program.
8. Research International Careers. There are almost endless types of international careers, so think about the kind of work that best matches your goals, skills, and personality. If you want to explore graduate schools, check out the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs; 202-326-7828; [www.apsia.org].
Remember, what you do when you return home may be more important than what you do while overseas. Your international work has just begun. Now go forth and change the world!
ZAHARA HECKSCHER is the co-author of How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas (with Joseph Collins and Stefano DeZerega, Penguin Putnam, 2002), available at most bookstores or at www.volunteeroverseas.org. See Zahara Heckscher's bio for more information her work.