What you can gain from volunteering abroad

Volunteering gave me the greatest gift. Not only did it give me the greatest fountain of pub stories, it gave me memories I’ll cherish forever, a second family on the other side of the globe and it showed me what I loved to do: travel. Whilst volunteering is pretty selfless, what it will give you in return is more than you could ever imagine.

Volunteering gives you the chance to get under the skin of a country. You live and work in a community for an extended period; you get to know what they’re about, how they tick. In the worst and least likely scenario, you’re the token foreigner, who observes from afar. In my experience, you become one of the family, the guest of honour and you are valued far more than you’ll ever realise. I respect the backpackers of the world who hop from place to place, hostel after hostel, country after country, but that’s just not me. To me, the world isn’t a check list. Sure, there are thousands of places I want to see, but I know that I’ll get there in time. There is a difference between seeing a place and living a place – taking time to make roots makes unforgettable memories and a home that will always welcome you with open arms.

Volunteering gives you one hell of an emotional experience. When you’re a volunteer, you can experience such a spectrum of emotions – sometimes they hit you all at once. In developing countries, there will be things that shock and upset you, but, at the same time, things that give you the greatest hope. As a volunteer language assistant, I saw children whose only meal a day was the free one they were given at school, who came to school dirty. I was informed by the school social worker to watch one of my students for signs of neglect; it turned out he didn’t have a bed to sleep in at home. On the other hand was the student who got a full scholarship to a private academy – the chance of a lifetime for a little boy whose dream was to be a lawyer. It’s one hell of a ride but it reminds you, you’re alive and of how lucky you are.

Volunteering gives you professional experience. No matter what field you want to go in to, there will be an opportunity for you. It can act as a test drive and a door opener. Think you might want to be a doctor? Why not volunteer to work at a health centre in the developing world? Not only will you be helping other people, but you’ll be seeing if the job is really for you before you embark on 7 years of medical school! It also shows universities that you’re serious enough about your chosen career to spend your free time doing something related – serious brownie points!

Volunteering gives you the chance to do things you never thought you could. Did I ever think I would write the English exams for every year group in a Chilean public school, and then proceed to mark over 1000 papers? Did I ever think I would hike a glacier? Drink wine as its being squirted from a leather bota? No, but I did them. Would I ever have got the chance without biting the bullet, going abroad and getting stuck in? Not a chance. You’ll find you’ll be tested in all sorts of ways – sometimes you’ll feel battered from pillar to post, but in the end you’ll have come out of your comfort zone so many times that you’ll find yourself redefining it’s boundaries all together.

Volunteering gives you the chance to meet the greatest people. Be it your work colleagues who end up more like sisters, or the like-minded fellow volunteers you explore with on the weekends, you’ll come home with friends you’ll never forget.