Are You Ready To Volunteer Abroad

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 (we got some too!).

However, I prefer to be up-front about the challenges facing travelers when they volunteer abroad, since I expect my volunteers to be a cut above the rest.

I do not accept everyone who applies to my 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 is a volunteer who is simply not interested in being there in the first place – either in terms of the volunteer work or even the whole concept of traveling to a different country.

Perhaps they were pushed by their parents to go on the trip.

Or they were jealous of their peers who bragged about their own volunteering adventures abroad.

Or maybe the volunteer went on the trip primarily to juice up their college applications or job resumes.

And there’s what I call the “spring breaker” who basically treats the volunteer trip as a chance to get (far) away from mom and dad and party like a rock star (using their money of course).

Is a volunteer isolating themselves in their bedroom for long stretches of time, counting the days until their departure flight from the country.

And just as bad, there are volunteers who decide to put themselves in dangerous situations like exiting nightclubs at 2 AM 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).

Your volunteer organization will provide handbooks and guides and direct contact with their staff and alumni in the form of phone calls, emails, and social media. There are also literally thousands of blogs, videos, and photo albums on the Internet from travelers who share their own experiences volunteering abroad.

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.

While you’re in the host country, ideally you should be able to rely on help from others in maneuvering in this culture that’s likely totally new to you. Such as – the local coordinators with your volunteer organization, your host family, your work supervisor, and even fellow volunteers.

However don’t be fooled into thinking that you have a built-in system for helping you cope with culture shock.


Almost everyone you deal with through your experience will be locals. It starts with your in-country coordinators and host family members. The vast majority of these folks will have never stepped foot outside of their country – and maybe even their own province! No matter how much training or experience they might say they have, they aresimply not capable of fully understanding and relating to the culture shock you’ll likely experience. It’s not their fault though, so don’t get mad at them.

What about your fellow volunteers?

If you’re on a group trip with peers from home, the instant company and companionship can he really helpful with handling culture shock. Strange foods? Dusty and bumpy roads? Curfew at 9 PM? These new realities can be easier to take when you  can share a laugh about them and compare notes. But ultimately they’re in the same position as you – strangers in a strange land.

And volunteers from other countries? It’s certainly possible to pick up some cultural knowledge and confidence from fellow travelers you’re meeting for the first time. Many of them will likely be from Europe, whose students travel abroad quite regularly on “gap years” so they’re used to dealing with new cultures. So yes, get to know them, ask questions about their experiences. But even then, So you’re going to have work through a lot of the culture shock by yourself.

Culture Shock Areas

There are three main areas in which you as a volunteer will experience culture shock:

> Volunteer Program

> Host Family

> Daily Life in the Community

Volunteer Program

Most volunteer programs abroad include both individual programs as well as group trips like summer camps. Especially in an individual program, expect that 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.

Some examples of culture shock:

> 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 sometimes not finish work until 10PM. Will you be comfortable taking a 1-hour public bus back home by yourself.

> As an orphanage volunteer in Vietnam, you will be expected to walk in on day 1 and begin helping out immediately – with the children’s schooling, meals, arts & crafts, and playtime. The directors and staff likely will not speak English at all. And they have  so much responsibility that they will not have much time to hold your hand.

Host Family

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 8pm 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 your volunteer organization 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. Or at the very least, you are not ready to live with a host family abroad (which is certainly possible and fine).

When living with your host family, you might also need to re-consider your western sense of privacy and self- reliance. Although we do recommend “down-time” away from the family, do not be surprised if this is sometimes difficult to achieve. As they do with with their own family members, your host family will worry about you – and tell you so. They’ll ask you 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. Families, and society in general, in places like Africa and India are very group-oriented, relying on each other daily for support.

Daily Life in the Community

One of the biggest concepts you will have to learn about volunteering abroad is that you will never be anonymous in your local community.

Even in large urban areas like Delhi, Beijing, and Nairobi, people will notice you and often stare at you, even call out to you (especially if they’re young kids). Please keep in mind that ninety-nine percent of people are merely being curious about you; they are not sizing you up for a scam or anything bad.

For example, every visitor to Ghana becomes familiar with the phenomenon of children yelling at foreigners the word “Abroni” which means “white man,” usually followed by an innocent giggle by the kids. This “Abroni” interaction is pretty amusing at first but can get very tiresome after a couple of days.

Here’s where you need some cultural knowledge before you get off the plane, in order to avoid any type of strife of discomfort. The knowledge in this case?

> “Abroni” is NOT a derogatory term like the “N” word.

> The local children are simply being friendly and curious about you and want some of your attention.

> It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is, they use “Abroni” with all foreigners.

> The optimal response? Usually a smile and wave and say hello. (I’ve told some volunteers over the years to have some fun with this interaction by saying in response “Obinini” which means “black man” – it will surely get the kids laughing!)

> People calling out to you and staring as you walk down the street doing nothing? Try to have some fun with the attention – because this might be your only chance in life to feel what it’s like to be Brad and Angelina and have your every move in public watched!

Other Challenges in the Community

How about some other typical challenges that volunteers find in their local communities abroad?

> Being approached by a group of beggar children in Bangalore, India. Should you give money? Ignore them? Watch out too – I’ve even been bitten on the arm by them.

> Being the only westerner among a village of 1,500 people in rural Kenya, with no one around from home who “understands” you.

> Taking a one-hour bus ride in Ecuador to reach the nearest Internet café, only to find that it’s closed.

> Riding from the airport in Mumbai with our Coordinator late at night and seeing thousands of homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, under bridges, and on trash heaps.

> Teaching in a school in Nepal where the principal regular disciplines students by hitting them on the head with a bamboo stick (and sometimes drawing blood).

> 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)

The worst case scenario for a volunteer is to feel so overwhelmed and homesick early on during your first week abroad that you consider just flying back home early without fully trying to adjust yourself to the local culture; thereby wasting all of the energy, goodwill, and thousands of dollars you spent on taking this trip.

But there is hope. Try to have low expectations for the trip. Actually — try to have NO EXPECTATIONS for the trip. Simply take every moment as it comes. Do not anticipate or prejudge any situation, town, person or your volunteer job. Just jump in and be yourself and the culture shock will likely not overwhelm you.