Some things just stick with you forever. Those who have had the honor and privilege of volunteering abroad understand that completely!
There’s something truly life-altering about leaving all you know and love back home and briefly moving somewhere totally unfamiliar: you know nothing about the culture and not a word of the language. This might sound like a crazy mission to some, (heck, it might sound a little crazy to you, too!) but you take that leap anyway. Whether it’s for your professional or personal development, you always come back just a little… different.
1. You will be more grateful for what you have.
“The children were some of the poorest I have ever seen, but so friendly and pleasant that even on that first day, I realized they would be teaching us more on the value of life than we would be teaching them.” - Bronagh Faherty
When you’re volunteering abroad, maybe it’s your cold showers, your iPhone-less pockets, or the simple roads running through your local town that changes the way you see “typical” things. It’s incredible how much we take for granted in highly developed countries––from the clean water we drink to comprehensive healthcare––that isn’t always the most accessible in many parts of the world.
Regardless, the locals you’ll meet will still have much to teach you. You might learn that the first crisp, cool morning air that fills your lungs is more rejuvenating than that $5 Starbucks cappuccino. Every meal you have, conversation you share, and small experience is a gift when you’re abroad.
2. You will always hunger for more experiences.
“I discovered so much about the world and myself. Yet, there seems to be something in my heart which urges me to return there one day in the future to rediscover the adventurous Joe, and to rekindle the friendships which I forged. The true Thailand awaits to those who are adventurous enough to seek it.”- Joe Pournovin
We all know that feeling. The moment you step onto your plane to head back home, there’s that overwhelming sense of hunger in your heart that you can’t fully explain. But it’s something you need so badly that you can’t help but start planning your next adventure the moment the flight attendant asks you to put your tray tables up and your seats upright for lift-off.
Your time abroad could make you “hungry” for many types of experiences: whether it’s the hunger for a sense of community passion that you cannot find back at home, for more worldly insight, or for that certain part of yourself that gets lost once you return home.
3. You will become more culturally sensitive.
When you don’t leave the comfort of your home country, it’s easy to forget how different the rest of the world is. No matter how great your hometown is, traveling gives you an opportunity to experience and respect people from all walks of life.
In some of the bigger, more tourist-y cities abroad, like Shanghai, Dubai, New York City, or Lima, it’s hard to get a truly authentic experience of the history of that rich culture. But one of the best parts about volunteering abroad is that you get to dive deeper than that. You get to integrate into a truer part of that culture, oftentimes in a small town or village in the rural areas. You get to live like a local––not like a tourist.
Through your experience living the average life of a person in that culture, you’ll be able to connect with the country so much better in ways you can’t get from sightseeing or touring, and you’ll be so much more appreciative and open-minded of different cultures.
4. You’ll get better at communicating with no words at all.
“I was very nervous about starting at Tha Rue Jang school, but the teachers were very friendly and welcomed me almost as family. The children's English skills were very limited, but over the course of my stay, we found many ways to communicate without language.” - Rahn Goodhew
Language barriers are challenging, we won’t deny that. Not being able to understand one another poses some very serious questions:
How can I communicate?
What happens if I need help?
How can I make friends?
In addition to becoming awesome at charades, volunteers abroad figure out very quickly how much you can still deeply connect with people, despite the lack of words. Children often just need someone to play with; talking isn’t always at the top of their list of priorities. You’ll find that “communication” can take many forms.
From the tone of their voice and the look in their eyes, you’ll learn to read emotions and body language of those around you. You might miss some details (like exact translations and bits of sentences), but you know when someone is sharing a sad, happy, and/or personal story. When it comes to connecting with a person, that’s really all that matters––that they’re sharing a part of themselves with you. It’s okay if you don’t speak the same language.
5. “Home” will forever mean something different to you.
“Believe me that at the end of each and every day, as I washed my feet of the Ghanaian dust, I counted my blessings, and even though I washed away the dust, I will never wash away the lessons of my 28 days here. Again, I am truly blessed to have met such wonderful people, and I am definitely planning on coming back to Ghana as now I have family.” - Brenda Brunelle
As you settle back in your original home, unpack your belongings, and go through the photos you’ve taken, you’ll reflect back on how much you’ve changed, but also see how much nothing in your hometown has changed in your weeks away. It’s almost baffling.
You’ve gone through a lot of changes, you’ve met so many different people, and you’ve learned so much about the world and yourself.
Returning home and seeing your loved ones again is wonderful. But “home” serves a whole new meaning now. They say home is where the heart is––but where is yours, now? Perhaps it’s a specific country, or a small town or village. Or maybe like many of us at uVolunteer, we leave a little bit of “home” with the people we meet along the way. If we ever reunite, it feels like a homecoming. Our hearts yearn for adventure now. Will yours?
There are few things in this world that resonate with us enough that it changes who we are. Volunteering abroad doesn’t always affect everyone in the same ways, but for those of us who get to experience it, we realize just how important it is in our lives. How has volunteering or traveling abroad changed you? If you haven’t set off on your journey yet, how do you hope it changes your life?