The Reality of Volunteering Abroad

volunteering abroadVolunteering with animals isn't all petting and playing. It's mostly shoveling poop!

So, you’ve decided on volunteering abroad as your next adventure; good for you!  Right now, you probably have visions of teaching children to read, feeding exotic rescued animals, or building a hospital in a far-away land.  Volunteering abroad is a life-changing experience that comes with a wide array experiences.  Most will be great, while some will just be downright annoying.  Regardless of whether it’s a pro or con, the realities of volunteering will help you grow as a person.  When you volunteer, there will be:

Down Time

Depending on the type of project and the number of volunteers, you’ll have a varying amount of down time.  This can be a positive or a negative based on how you look at it.  You can sit around bored out of your mind or you can use this time to relax, come up with new projects, explore, or hang out with other volunteers/staff.

volunteering abroad

My favorite down time activity: hanging out with iguanas

Discomfort

Hot, humid days approaching (or exceeding) 100 degrees.  Mosquitoes attacking you 24-7.  Thin, uncomfortable mattresses.  Living above a string of nightclubs.  Cold water showers.

You’ll experience all kinds of discomfort while volunteering.  The world isn’t a climate-controlled hotel room with big, fluffy pillows and room service.  You will be uncomfortable at times.  But the physical comforts you sacrifice will be vastly exceeded by the mental and emotional comfort you’ll find in volunteering.

volunteering abroad

Mosquitoes = discomfort level 10

Romance

Put a bunch of young people together in a foreign land and romance is sure to blossom.  Will it happen for everyone?  No, this is still real life, not a romantic comedy.  But, odds are there will be people developing crushes, hooking up, or actually falling for each other.  Travel romance is often fast and fleeting, but plenty of people have found lasting love on the road.  Maybe you can too!

People You Won’t Like

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there will be people you don’t like.  Whether they’re loud and cocky, quiet and boring, always drunk/high, or just plain annoying; somebody will get on your nerves.  This can be extra frustrating if you’re living in the same apartment or room.  Just remember, it’s temporary.  Once your project ends, you never have to see them again.

Demanding Work

Volunteering can be both physically and mentally taxing. Building a school or working an agricultural project can lead to some seriously sore muscles at the end of the day.  Most volunteers recognize this when they sign up for a labor-intensive project.

What many volunteers may fail to realize is the mental challenges that accompany volunteering abroad.  Working on a hospital or orphanage project in a developing country can expose a volunteer to the harsh realities of life that they’re sheltered from at home.  Seeing sick or dying children, displaced refugees, or the challenges faced by impoverished people first hand, not on the news, is not something to take lightly.  You’re there to help these people and show them respect and kindness.  What you’ll get in return for this display of humanity is far more than you could ever imagine.

volunteering abroad

Moving this pile of scrap metal & wood up the hill left me exhausted and sore the next day – which is much easier to deal with than tough mental challenges that come with volunteering abroad

Friends You Will See Again

One of the greatest takeaways from volunteering abroad is making new friends.  These are often people who share your love of adventure and a desire to do some good in the world.  Maybe you’re from the same country and don’t live too far from each other.  Or, perhaps, your new friend lives somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit (or vice versa).  The bond formed while traveling or volunteering abroad is often stronger than when meeting new people at home.  And if you’re a long-term or regular traveler, there’s a good chance you’ll cross paths again.

volunteering abroad

When you make awesome friends, you make it a point to see them again! Can’t wait to meet up with these 2 in the future!

Communication Issues

Cultural differences, language barriers, and disorganization are often present when volunteering abroad.  These aspects of working in a different country often result in communication issues.  You may end up confused as to what your tasks are for the day.  Efficiency can go right out the window when you’re not on the same page as your volunteer supervisor/coordinator.  The frustration is not a negative, rather it’s a learning opportunity.  Learning how to overcome communication issues is an incredibly useful skill; it builds patience and understanding.  You also have the potential to learn some of the local language and culture by facing these challenges head on.

“Squawk squawk squawk” — “Damnit, Frank! How many times do I have to tell you I don’t speak bird language!”

Some Days It’s a Vacation

Taking a gap year or spending your hard-earned vacation time on volunteering abroad is a noble undertaking.  You’re giving up your time to relax and unwind to do work in another country.  However, another perk of volunteering abroad are the free days.  You’re able to explore the country, experience local culture, go on adventures, and party like you’re on holiday.  This is your time.  It’s your little weekly reward for contributing to the project.  So, kick off your shoes and relax or get all dressed up and hit the club until dawn, because some days it’s a vacation!

volunteering abroad

Spending a free day drinking beers and watching the sunset on the beach with these lovelies works for me!


Volunteering abroad is one of the most noble ways to give back to the world.  If you go into a project with the right mentality and motivations, you’ll make a positive difference.  Accept that it won’t be as comfortable and easy as life at home.  The reality of volunteering abroad is that if you face these challenges and embrace the positives with equal enthusiasm, you’ll get more out of it than you ever expected and have a great time doing it!

1 Comment

  1. Awesome article. It’s good to actually get the realness on volunteering. Like all advertising, you only get the glamour side of volunteering. That mosquito carnage looks absolutely dreadful!

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