Why do we travel? To see jaw-dropping sights, to meet exciting people from all walks of life, to come back with stories to share in the pub with our mates? Or because we want to leave our mark on the world, make a difference, and give a little back to our great Mother Earth 🙏🌳? For me, it’s a combination of everything listed above, which is precisely why volunteering abroad has become my 360° solution. I want to leave a socially conscious footprint which benefits not just me but also those around me when I volunteer abroad – exploring, not exploiting the cultures which I’m immersed in.
So why volunteer abroad as part of your travels? As Dr Seuss masterfully pointed out “you have brains in your head and feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose”. We’re the generation who are lucky enough to have travelling as a hobby. We shouldn’t forget that just a few decades ago travelling to another country was something which you could only glimpse in a book (I know – can you imagine?!). Naturally then, it’s important that we make travelling sustainable by giving something back. Something which not only helps the local community, but *fingers crossed* also means that we can carry on travelling for many years to come.
Still on board? Then read on for 12 reasons to volunteer abroad that will put you on the path of being a more socially conscious traveller.
1. Volunteering Gives You Perspective
It’s easy to get caught up in the detail of everyday life. That work presentation you’ve been dreading, the party you didn’t get an invite to, that photo which you wish had never made its way onto Instagram. Things which make your stomach turn at the time will seem trivial once you’ve stepped away and allowed some perspective to shine down on the situation.
Nobody wants Captain Hindsight to come knocking at the door 10 years down the line telling us that we’ve spent too much time sweating the small stuff. Volunteering overseas gives you a break from everyday realities, which means that when you return you’ll appreciate how good you have it. *Disclaimer* in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably pretty darn good!
2. You Learn How To Live Simply
When you surround yourself with people who don’t have much, you start to question how important your “must have” items really are. The locals don’t care if the top you’re wearing is from a cool expensive shop or whether you have the latest iPhone. When you strip items back to what you actually NEED, you’ll find it’s really very little. This can be extremely liberating when you return back home, as you place less importance on things, and more importance on living. I found myself giving clothes, shoes and the like to charity shops when I returned from my last volunteer abroad trip – and FYI, if you haven’t worn it in the last 6 months, it’s probably time to get rid.
3. You Learn New Skills…Fast
Language development, project management, teaching, construction…These are just a few of the skills you could pick up along the way whilst you’re volunteering abroad. It’s different to just sitting in a class, as you’re learning on the job, so you’ll naturally pick things up way faster than if you were attempting it back home. You could even end up mastering skills which you’d never even dreamed of trying (who would’ve thought that I’d make such a stellar plasterer? Not me, that’s for sure).
4. You’ll Work Out What’s Important To You
If you’re not sure whether you’re on the right path in life (and to be honest, who is?!) then finding a volunteer abroad opportunity can be an amazing way to work out what matters to you. Separating yourself from influences like family and friends can give you the headspace to work out what’s right for YOU and how you want to spend your life.
Modern pressures from society can often make us feel as though we’re being forced down a career path which we have to stick to, all guns blazing. Volunteering abroad can give you a much needed step away from those pressures, so that you can hit the ground running upon your return.
5. You’ll Experience A New Culture Completely
You never really know a place until you’ve lived there. If you’re volunteering somewhere which includes accommodation (if not, grab a hostel) you’ll dive head first into the lives and culture of those around you. From morning ’til night you’ll be living and breathing a culture which is different to your own – something which just can’t be experienced from the comfort of a tour bus.
Getting to know another way of life by stepping into the shoes of another human opens your eyes, ears and mind to the world around you. You’ll eat like a local, sleep like a local, drink like a local. Which in my case whilst volunteering in Africa meant that I ate plantains for breakfast, plantains for lunch and plantains for dinner 🍌.
6. You’ll Meet The Greatest People In Host Cities
The welcomes I’ve received from locals in host cities are unparalleled – endless amounts of warmth, happiness and gratitude. Crossing paths with people who you’d normally walk straight past is, for me, THE most compelling reason to volunteer abroad. Yes, you may get your community tribe vibes from staying at a hostel but the unique characters you meet whilst volunteering are enough to make me want to jump straight back onto that plane to do it all over again.
7. You’ll Meet Other Like-Minded Volunteers
No doubt that some of the anxiety surrounding volunteering in a new country is to do with the idea that you’ll feel alone. You’re a long, long way from home and the unfamiliarity of the situation could leave you feeling in need of those home comforts. In fact, taking part in a volunteer scheme can be one of the best ways to meet similarly minded individuals who are setting out to do the same thing as you.
You’ve already got something in common (a shared mission to help others) and you’re working collectively for the greater good. Everything is turbo-charged when you’re travelling, including friendships. You connect and bond with people quickly – after all, you’re on this journey of self-discovery together which can often result in #friendshipgoals for life.
8. Future Employers Will Rate Your Experience
Dedicating your time to something other than yourself shows compassion, good ethics and an open mind. These are all skills which could set you ahead of the rest and land you that job when you return home to the motherland. When you volunteer abroad, you have to think on your feet and take initiative. These are hard things to convey when there’s a CV between you and an interview, but mentioning volunteering abroad on a personal statement is like a subtle way of writing “Hey, I care about the world and similarly, I would care about this job”.
9. Your Confidence Will Go Through The Roof
Volunteering abroad throws you straight into the deep end. One trip could entail you standing in front of a class in Ghana teaching little ones the English alphabet, another could involve assisting at a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre in Amazonian Ecuador. There’s no time to be nervous when there’s more pressing matters at hand, so being confident will become second nature.
10. You Begin To Embrace The Unexpected
Let’s face it, the 9-5 routine can sometimes leave us in such a monotonous trance that when something unexpected does happen, we are less than equipped to deal with it. Taking part in a volunteer trip couldn’t be further from mundane and this can impact your life post-trip as you start to roll with the uncertainties.
11. You’ll Learn How To Adapt Quickly
Just as the chameleon can camouflage itself from one tree to the next, you’ll start to see yourself adapting from one task to another with increased ease. It’s rare that a volunteer abroad trip will be plain sailing and as the needs of the local community may change, you’ll have to follow suit.
12. It’s A Springboard For Travelling And Vice Versa
Travelling aimlessly from one country to the next can be a hell of a ride, but volunteering can add a sense of purpose to the trip and vice versa. For many, volunteering abroad in another country can act as a springboard for further exploration of a country. It’s easy to bolt on a few weeks to the end of your volunteer stay to ensure that you’re seeing as much of the country as possible – and this is also your perfect excuse to check out some awesome hostels along the way.
Now, here’s the important bit. Unlike man & woman, not all volunteer abroad experiences were created equal! The driving force of any volunteering trip has always been and should always be helping communities and making a positive, responsible difference. The rise of voluntourism has been given a bad rep recently due to its lack of responsible programmes and extreme commercialisation.
It’s absolutely vital that you choose a project that makes a genuine difference to a community and that you are playing a part which is transformative, not destructive. GivingWay is where I found my volunteer trips – they’ve returned the volunteer abroad experiences to its roots, before all the noise took over. They focus on travelling with meaning, with local communities in over 80 countries.
About The Author
Jen Gale lives in London and has spent time volunteering in Africa and Central America. She’s passionate about teaming travel with volunteer projects and wants to inspire others to do the same.