Volunteering abroad is not for everybody. It can be an overwhelming, stressful experience for even the most seasoned travelers, both psychologically, physically, and financially.
You may not often find this type of information published by other volunteer organizations. Many of them prefer to paint an entirely rosy picture of the volunteer experience abroad, with slick websites and fancy brochures. However, we prefer to be up-front about the challenges facing travelers when they volunteer abroad, since we do expect our volunteers to be a cut above the rest.
We do not accept everyone who applies to our programs. Our volunteers need to be creative, enthusiastic and resourceful self-starters.
We simply must be selective due to the nature of our host countries and programs, which – while safe – can be very difficult to handle because of the culture shock as well as the relatively unstructured nature of many of the individual programs we offer.
The last thing anyone wants (including Cosmic’s Scott Burke, our coordinators abroad, host families, volunteer placements and of course the volunteer’s family back home) is a volunteer isolating themselves in their bedroom for long stretches of time, counting the days until their departure flight from the country. Any just as bad, volunteers who decide to put themselves in dangerous situations like exiting nightclubs at 2am in places like Nairobi.
Can you Handle the Culture Shock?
As much as we try to prepare our volunteers before they leave home for the inevitable culture shock of living and working in a non-western country, there is nothing that can entirely prepare you for your experience abroad. (Be very wary of any organization or individual who says they can).
Yes, we provide pretrip guides, phone calls, emails, and alumni contact before you leave home. But the only way to fully understand a country’s culture, people, landscape, and language is to get on the plane and experience it for yourself.
Below we have separate sections on the three main areas that our volunteers have to adjust to:
- Volunteer Program
- Host Family
- Daily Life in the Community
Our volunteer programs abroad include both individual programs as well as group trips like summer camps. Especially in an individual program, you will not have every minute of every work day intricately planned for you. You must be a resourceful, self-starter who can handle situations where schedules are sometimes non-existent and resources are scarce.
> As a medical student volunteering at a clinic in a rural village in Kenya, you will help the local nurse treat patients with limited supplies and medicines.
> As a volunteer teacher in Ecuador with a TEFL certificate but limited teaching experience, you will have to walk into a classroom of 50 class 4 students everyday and help them learn English, using their own text book but also your own methods and materials.
> As a journalist intern working at a television station in Ghana, you will have sometimes not finish work until 10PM then take a 1-hour public bus back home by yourself.
> As an orphanage volunteer in Vietnam, you will be considered by the orphanage’s director and staff as an independent volunteer who can walk into their orphanage on day 1 and begin helping out immediately – with the children’s schooling, meals, arts & crafts, and playtime. The directors and staff often do not have loads of time to hand-hold our volunteers.
In most of our programs abroad, you will be living with a local host family. This will not only be a family you have never met before, but a family that comes from a cultural background entirely different from yours, with vastly different practices, attitudes, approaches to life, and language(s).
For example, many of our volunteers are university students, who enjoy a great degree of freedom in their daily lives, able to come and go at all hours of the day and night.
How will you react when your host family strongly prefers you to be home for the night by 7pm Monday-Friday, because that is the family’s usual practice (even for their children in their 20’s)? Will you:
- Adhere to the family’s request.
- Try to reach compromise with the family.
- Ignore the family’s request altogether.
- Call us and demand a switch to a new family.
If you have absolutely no idea how you would handle the above situation, then you are most likely not ready to volunteer abroad with us.
You might also need to re-consider at the host family your western sense of privacy and self-reliance. Although we do recommend “down-time” away from the family, do not be surprised if it’s sometimes difficult to achieve. As they do with with their own family members, your family will worry about you – and tell you so – asking if you’re eating properly, sleeping well, getting along with work colleagues etc. Do not get offended at this! Your family is simply showing you how much they care about you, as folks in places like Ghana and India and Ecuador are very group-oriented, relying on each other daily for support.
Daily Life in the Community
Would you be able to handle these situations?
> Being approached by a group of beggar children in Bangalore, India.
> Being the only westerner among a village of 1,500 people in rural Kenya.
> Taking a 1-hour bus ride in Ecuador to reach the nearest Internet café.
> Riding from the airport in Delhi with our Coordinator late at night and seeing thousands of homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, under bridges, and on trash heaps.
> Sightseeing in Ghana on the weekends, and having the bus passenger seated next to you ask intimate questions about your job, salary, romantic life, and family? (This is NOT unusual in most of our host countries)
> Being so homesick for family and friends the first week that that you would consider wasting all of the energy, effort, and thousands of dollars you spent on taking your trip by just flying back home early – without trying to adjust to your local settings.
All of the issues discussed above — regarding the volunteer programs, host families, and daily life abroad — are critically important when you consider whether to volunteer abroad.
Think about them, talk to your peers, family, school counselors, or work colleagues, and continue to research countries and volunteer organizations. Also ask us for contact information from previous volunteers so that you can get even more first-hand feedback on the volunteer abroad experience.
If you feel you are truly ready for a challenging volunteer trip, we will be more than happy to talk to you about our programs and the entire volunteer experience.