Volunteering abroad is an enriching experience, but it’s not without its share of challenges. From language barriers and culture shock to homesickness, these hurdles can test even the most resilient individuals. In this latest blog post, we will explore common challenges that volunteers may face and offer practical tips, advice, and inspiring stories from those who have successfully navigated these obstacles to make the most of their volunteer experience.
Language Barriers: Bridging the Communication Gap
One of the most common challenges faced by international volunteers is dealing with language barriers. Here’s how you can tackle this obstacle:
Preparation is Key: Before you leave for your volunteer program, invest time in learning basic phrases in the local language. Consider taking language classes or using language-learning apps to build a foundation. This will not only help with communication but also show respect for the culture.
Use Non-Verbal Communication: When words fail, gestures and body language can be powerful tools for conveying your message. A friendly smile and a positive attitude can go a long way in building connections, even when language is a barrier. If teaching, you’ll be surprised what you can teach using just body language and things like flashcards and objects!
Engage with Locals: Make an effort to interact with local community members and fellow volunteers who may be more familiar with the language. They can help with translation and interpretation, and this collaboration can be a fantastic opportunity to learn from one another.
Language Learning: Consider enrolling in language classes or language exchange programs during your volunteer period to improve your communication skills. Our South America (Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala) projects offer language courses as an add-on the volunteering experience.
Culture Shock: Embrace the Unfamiliar
Culture shock is a natural part of volunteering abroad, as you immerse yourself in a different way of life. Here’s how to navigate this:
Educate Yourself: Research and familiarise yourself with the local customs, traditions, and values to reduce the element of surprise. Books, online resources, and conversations with people who have previously volunteered in the region can be excellent sources of information.
Maintain an Open Mind: Be receptive to new experiences and perspectives. Embrace the differences and view them as opportunities to learn and grow. Remember that culture shock is a phase and that it will pass as you adapt to your new surroundings.
Connect with Locals: Building relationships with locals can provide insight into their culture and make you feel more at home. Participate in community events, gatherings, or volunteer in local initiatives to become part of the community.
Stay Positive: Maintain a positive mindset and focus on the unique and enriching aspects of the culture you’re encountering. Keeping a journal to document your experiences and feelings can be a great way to process and reflect on your journey.
Dealing with Homesickness
Feeling homesick is a common challenge for many volunteers. Here are some tips on coping with the pangs of missing home:
Stay Connected: Keep in touch with friends and family through regular calls, messages, or video chats. It’s essential to have a support system that understands your journey and is available to provide emotional support when needed.
Create a Sense of Home: Personalise your living space with familiar items or photographs. This can provide comfort and familiarity in your new environment. Carry mementos from home that serve as a reminder of loved ones.
Engage in Activities: Immerse yourself in your volunteer work and local activities to keep your mind occupied and distracted from homesickness. Staying busy and engaged can help minimize feelings of isolation.
Meet Fellow Volunteers: Share your feelings with fellow volunteers, as they might be going through similar emotions. Supporting each other can make a significant difference. Many volunteers develop deep bonds with their peers because they share this unique experience.
To inspire and reassure you that challenges can be overcome, here are some real-life stories and testimonials from past volunteers.
Hannah volunteered on the Fiji Nutrition Outreach Program
“I spent two weeks travelling around Fiji where I stayed in Lautoka, Suva, a village, and a resort – so lots of different accomodation styles. I was very lucky to have had such an amazing team to work with – they went from being a team of strangers, to becoming like a second family to me.
We received training on how to perform blood pressure and blood sugar checks, and how to take height, weight, and waist measurements correctly. The first week of the project was spent living in a village. It was a huge culture shock at first, just a completely different way of living to what we have back home. But it was one of the highlights of my trip because never have I felt so welcomed, accepted, and taken care of by such lovely and friendly people.
Our host family were wonderful, making us feel so at home and giving us the opportunity to really immerse ourselves in the culture. I learnt so much from them – Fijian phrases, what they typically eat, how to tie a sulu correctly, their history, what a typical day in a village is like, the etiquette, etc.
By the end of the stay I really did feel like a local. This was a truly eye opening and rewarding experience, being able to put a smile on each individual’s face when we performed the health checks and knowing how much it meant to them was such an amazing experience to be apart of.
The second week of the project was spent at Nanuku resort. This was a completelty different contrast to what we had experienced the previous week. But again, just like the first week, we were warmly welcomed and just our presence was so highly regarded by the Fijian people. A highlight for me in this week was hearing how some of the ladies had consciously made the effort to increase their exercise and watch their sugar consumption, leading to lower weight and waist measurements which came primarily down to the fact that they had listened to our education talks the last time we had visited them. So hearing this only reinforced why this project is so worth becoming involved in, knowing that you truly are making small differences in peoples lives.”
Aimee volunteered on our Remote Island Project in Fiji
“My trip was absolutely amazing. It was definitely a hard adjustment at the start I must say, but so rewarding in the end. I made such strong connections with everyone I met, and formed lifelong memories. My whole perspective of the world is changed now, and I am so appreciative that I could experience this. I would 100% recommend this to anyone who is up for a challenge and great experience.”
Maria volunteered on our Kindergarten Program in Kathmandu, Nepal
“Nepal is a country based on deeply-rooted faith, tradition and welcoming attitude towards guests. Coming from a Christian society, I have been exposed to a variety of Hindu and Buddhist places of worship during my cultural week. The first week provided me with opportunities to grow, learn and immerse myself to be able to understand their way of life.
To further immerse my fellow participants and myself into the Nepalese way of life, the coordinator arranged cooking classes, Nepalese language class and Yoga. I personally feel that the cultural week is essential as I might not be as an empathetic participant if I had not gone through the program.”
Challenges are an integral part of any volunteer abroad experience, but with the right mindset, preparation, and support, you can conquer them and emerge from your journey stronger and more enriched. Remember, the difficulties you face are often the stepping stones to the most memorable and transformative moments of your volunteer adventure. Embrace the unknown, learn from it, and turn challenges into opportunities for personal growth and positive change. The ability to overcome these obstacles will not only enhance your volunteer experience but also equip you with skills and resilience that you can carry forward into your life.