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Is volunteering abroad for you?
The following article gives some general guidelines on volunteering - courtesy Volunteering Abroad


Volunteering requires flexibility, patience, those who are self-starters, and people who genuinely respect the host people and their culture. Volunteers never go to teach the people western ways, nor are they there to save the people. Volunteers go to share their energy and time with the people, to experience their culture first hand and to grow themselves.

Before you sign up you should consider the following: Can you camp? Can you live without modern plumbing, hot water and electricity? Most international volunteer experiences are hosted in developing countries. Before you go you should do some research. The last thing the volunteer organization and the locals need is someone complaining about the food. You will be surprised at how much or how little you need in the way of modern comforts to be happy. However, if you know yourself and you know that you wouldn't last an hour in a developing country there are still opportunities for you.

Are you open enough to accept and respect a culture no matter how different it is from your culture? This may be one of the most difficult aspects of your volunteer experience. There will be aspects of the local culture that confound your sense of logic or challenge your sense of justice, however, remember you are the visitor. No solitary volunteer can change centuries of tradition or culture. You must look deep inside yourself and determine if you are flexible enough to respect the local culture before you go. Despite what you may have heard, your job is not to teach the superiority of western ways. Some long-term volunteer organizations like the Peace Corp may include utilizing modern technology in the fields of agriculture, education and business.

Are you comfortable with yourself?

At times you may feel isolated, particularly when you arrive in a village knowing no one. Many students travel because they are dissatisfied with the state of their life at home. This is the wrong reason to venture internationally. If you have problems at home, i.e. your boyfriend, your faculty, your roommates, don't expect those problems to disappear once you are out of your home country. Chances are those problems will follow you and they will be more readily apparent with the additional cultural and adjustment issues. Many western students don't know much about themselves. You may have a schedule that includes surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals all day everyday. You are with you roommates, classmates, party friends around the clock. Many volunteers are placed in an isolated situation like a wildlife reserve or a small rural village. Your social life or the lack there of will be entirely up to you. Volunteering abroad is truly a study abroad experience. Every minute of everyday you will be a student.


Are you flexible? Are you hungry to learn?


You may learn a new language, a new culture, a new way of life. Flexibility and patience are the keys to having a satisfying experience. Developing countries in particular are not as obsessed with time as the US or Europe. Often Schedules are ignored or appointments begin later than arranged. NGO's, international non-profits and volunteer organizations are almost always understaffed. Your itinerary will not be as smooth and well organized as a tour or a Caribbean cruise. Things may seem disorganized at times. You may have to initiate your day-to-day itinerary. You may also encounter corruption; government officials and local administrators often work in ways that don't make sense to you. You have to accept the program and offer your services within those parameters.


What Will I Do?

Volunteer projects are as varied as you might imagine. Generally international volunteer experiences fall into four main arenas: Community Development-placements might be building a school, setting up a water treatment facility, cleaning the streets or planting trees. Education- teacher placement or acting as a teaching assistant in a local school or an adult education program. Eco-Environmental work- placements might be in wildlife reserves or national parks, monitoring endangered species, or working a reforestation project. Social Welfare- working with under-privileged children, working with a women's co-op, or working in a hospital or orphanage.


How Do I Get Started?

Do your homework. Research existing volunteer programs. If you have questions about the quality of the program ask for alumni references. www.VolunteerAbroad.com this is one of the largest directories on the internet. Organizations can list for free, as a result you will find local co-ops and grass roots organizations who cannot afford paid directories. Along with your sunscreen and mosquito netting be sure to pack your patience and flexibility. Have the experience of a lifetime!

Why Volunteer? 

Brains in your head, feet in your shoes, and a diploma in hand may be good starts, but volunteerism offers you wonderful opportunities for professional development and personal growth. If you are looking for ways to enhance your career, or if you are looking for ways to attract volunteers, consider the following benefits and then learn more about the volunteer experience:


Volunteering offers incredible networking opportunities.

Volunteering in your community allows you to meet new people, including community leaders. You don't have to join a club or attend meetings. You can volunteer at a time that fits your schedule. You not only develop life long personal and professional relationships (friends), you can also hear about job openings, gather insider employment information and develop great references.

Volunteering helps you retain and sharpen old skills.

Sometimes job duties change and you may no longer be doing things you used to do, and liked. Volunteering is a perfect venue for keeping those skills sharp and current. A young colleague at the university serves as a volunteer advisor for a student honorary group to keep her in touch with today's students - their likes, interests, music, concerns. She says it helps her in her counseling work to be aware of current tends and interests among the students.

Volunteering is the perfect place to develop new skills.

Employers are often seeking well-rounded individuals who have good teamwork and goal setting skills. Serving on a volunteer committee or board is a great way to learn group dynamics and teamwork. Serving as a committee chair increases facilitation skills. Planning and implementing a major fund raising event can develop goal setting, planning and budgeting skills. Supervising and training other volunteers helps to develop supervisory and training skills. Volunteering offers unlimited opportunities to cultivate new skills that can enhance a career.

Volunteering offers opportunities to practice skills in a relatively risk free environment.

It is much more effective to practice a skill than to read about it or study it in a classroom. Volunteering is an excellent place to experiment, practice and try out new techniques and skills. If offers you the opportunity build your self-confidence through practice. Additionally, volunteering provides you opportunities to observe others and select best practices. You can stretch yourself in new way that can benefit your career.

Volunteering can help you expand your horizons and explore new career options.

Demographics are changing rapidly in our society and volunteering is a great way to enhance cultural awareness. Group work not only fosters teamwork, but also offers opportunities to learn more about different perspectives. If you are thinking of a career change, volunteering is a perfect way to explore new fields. Sometimes a volunteer experience can lead you to something you never even though about or help you discover a skill or interest you were unaware of. You can strengthen your personal/professional mission and vision by exploring opportunities and expanding your horizons.

Volunteering give you the satisfaction of knowing you are doing good and being involved in your community.

A young professional man was very troubled by the Columbine High School shooting because he had personally felt like an outsider in high school and decided he would become a big brother to serve as a positive influence in a young life. He now feels connected in a whole new way. He is also gaining valuable personal skills such as patience and tolerance that have enhanced his professional standing. There are so many options for being involved in your community, through professional associations, neighborhood organizations, arts and historic organizations and social service organizations. If you feel strongly about something that is happening or not happening in your community, get involved. Get others to join with you and craft new solutions to community problems.

Volunteering gives you visibility.

A young manager at a major bank once told me that he loved to volunteer at the local food pantry on the same night as the bank's vice-president. This was his opportunity to be seen and known personally by the vice-president. Volunteer work can indeed expose you to a wide range of people, including many strong, influential community leaders. Our city has a young professional association called the "Movers and Shakers" because they want to be seen as people who get things done.

Volunteering can be energizing/renewing.

Sometimes we simply need a break in our routine, or an opportunity to create a balance in our lives. Volunteering around a personal interest or hobby can be fun, relaxing and energizing. That energy and sense of fulfillment can carry over to a work situation and sometimes helps to relieve work tensions and foster new perspectives for old situations.

Volunteering can create leaders.

By watching those around you, you can begin to identify the qualities of leadership that you most admire and you can develop those qualities in yourself. Managing a group of volunteers is not the same as managing employees. Volunteer groups are often groups of peers and they respond more to leadership than management. You will have opportunities to lead by persuasion, innovation and your ideas and ideals. Working in volunteer settings will help you learn strategic thinking, change management and conflict resolution skills. You will learn about your community, about trends and issues, about people and about resources. All of which can help you develop your leadership potential.

Volunteering demonstrates workplace skills/management skills/customer service skills/leadership skills that can be documented in a resume.

Work experience is work experience, with or without a paycheck. If you are developing new skills or thinking of pursuing a new career, volunteer work can give you valuable, practical experience. Career counselors, and headhunters encourage job seekers to document pertinent volunteer experiences. Volunteer work support skills, character and balance in life. 90% of executives in a national survey of Fortune 500 companies believed volunteering built teamwork and provided valuable professional development opportunities.

-- Ten Professional Development Benefits of Volunteering (Everything I Learned in Life I Learned through Volunteering). Mary V. Merrill, LSW, Merrill Associates


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