International Volunteers

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Do you want to see the world and make a difference in it at the same time? You may want to think about volunteering abroad. As an international volunteer, you would help people in developing countries help themselves.

International volunteers work in all aspects of international development -- education, medicine, agriculture, the environment, government and human rights.

You may teach children and adults how to read and write. You may work with local doctors and nurses to improve local medical care. You may teach farmers how to grow more crops.

You may work on local environmental causes with global significance. You may document the state of human rights in a country.

Regardless of what you end up doing, it's likely that your work will help build bridges -- physically and symbolically -- between different people and cultures. And it may well change you as a person.

Andrea Brigneti manages the youth programs for an international volunteer organization. She says her past volunteer stints taught her to be more tolerant and more flexible.

"You learn to accept people a lot more," she says. "You learn the importance of working with other people and seeing things from a different perspective. You learn the gift of giving."

Volunteering abroad will also teach you how to be an effective communicator and how to work as part of a team -- skills that are becoming increasingly important in today's job market.

But be warned. You may work in a country where violence is a common way to settle social and political conflict. So you may find yourself in the middle of a civil war or a revolution.

You may end up in a country where deadly diseases are common and where the medical system is poor. And you will definitely end up in a country where the climate and living conditions are very different.

Just ask Jan Grzeslo. A recent high school graduate, he volunteered for about three months in Costa Rica, where he and other volunteers from Canada and Australia built a path through the mountainous rainforest.

He says it rained during the entire month they built the path. "Everything was wet all the time," says Grzeslo. He had to sleep on a moldy mattress for the entire month he was up in the mountains.

His day started at 5 a.m. An hour later, they were hiking towards the building site. And that was not the worst of it.

"On the hike out there, we would have to carry big sacks of rocks and cement," he says. "It was the only way to get it out there."

That's because the wet weather and steep terrain made it impossible to use animals to carry supplies. "We had a horse one day, and it couldn't really make it," says Grzeslo. "We were the animals. But it was rewarding -- definitely."

One reward was learning more about the local people and their culture. "Traveling, to me, is probably the best way of educating. I learned more in those two and a half, three months than in my school career."

Grzeslo cannot wait to go abroad again -- this time to Thailand. He is already considering a career in international development.

Frieda Fairburn had just starting teaching when she went on her first tour of duty with the Peace Corps in the early '60s. President John F. Kennedy had founded it earlier that decade to encourage volunteerism among young people. His general vision and appeal played some part in Fairburn's decision to volunteer.

"But my curiosity and the challenge really impelled me," she says. "I was 26 and figured I would be a teacher after I came back. I had no dependants and no debts. All I had to do was pack."

So she did. She went to teach in Nigeria, a country in Africa that was just emerging from decades of British colonialism.

A week after she had arrived in Nigeria, she went to the school where she was supposed to teach history. But it did not quite turn out that way.

"I met the headmaster one day and was teaching math the next. I had taken math courses, but never taught it. I was prepared to teach history. I was glassy-eyed and a bit overwhelmed. But the staff and students were very polite and considerate. I was the only woman on the staff."

Thirty years later, she went on a second tour of duty with the Peace Corps -- this time to the Philippines, where she worked with teachers.

"I knew I wanted to test myself again," she says. "Could I do two years in a far different world? I taught on Long Island in a good suburban district. I felt too pampered."

But leaving for a second time was more difficult. She had a lot more worries, such as who would look after her house. And there were no other Peace Corps volunteers around during her time in the Philippines. This limited her social life.

"Single women are alien to Filipinos. I often felt isolated away from the schools."

That's something to think about if you consider volunteering abroad. You are likely to enter a culture that is quite different from yours, and you may not have the language skills to ease those differences -- at least not right away.

Brigneti was still in high school when she and a group of volunteers went to the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean nation, to document human rights violations against the Haitians who worked in the sugar cane fields.

There was only one problem. Although Dominicans speak Spanish, Haitians speak a version of French that the volunteers could not understand or speak. But these barriers didn't stop them.

Brigneti still remembers the time when the volunteers played games with the local children. "They were so friendly, so forward and so uninhibited," she says.

"They just came up to you and talked to you. And they ended up teaching us how to play a game, and we were playing this game with them, without even speaking."

How to Get Involved

Many groups, from churches to nonprofit groups to government agencies, offer opportunities to volunteer abroad. Some groups, though, are more reputable than others.

So how do you pick a good one? "Make sure that you ask," says Brigneti. "Make sure that emergency systems are covered." She says you should also ask past volunteers about their experiences.

Once you pick an organization that is right for you and it has accepted you, get ready for a lot of work. You cannot just simply get on a plane and leave.

You have to get the right travel documents. You have to get vaccinated. You have to find somebody who can look after your home and personal matters while you're gone.

You may have to do some fund-raising to pay for the trip. And you should spend some time learning something about the country and its people. This all takes time.

"On average, our participants take four months to get ready," says Brigneti. "Sometimes it is a little bit longer, sometimes it is a little bit less. I have seen people get ready in as little as a month and as long as year. It depends on what you need to do to go away. That's why you have to be really good at time management."

You should also prepare yourself for the culture shock that you will experience, says Fairburn. Expecting culture shock will not prevent it. "[But] there are books about cultures that can begin the process of acceptance."

Do some research on the country you will be living, says Brigneti. "Go there with an open mind and no assumptions because every culture is different." And don't be afraid to apologize if you think you made a mistake.

You must also accept living conditions that are far different from home.

"Some people get right into it," says Brigneti. "Some people have a harder time to adjust. Ultimately, you get used to it. It is just a matter of attitude and of how you approach it.

"If you are going to be [complaining] about it the whole time, you are not going to enjoy it. Just focus on what you are there for, and you will let go of the things that are making you uncomfortable. Because at the end you are going to come back...and miss that bucket shower or washing yourself in the river."


International Volunteer Programs Association

International Medical Volunteers Association


Volunteer Abroad
A general guide to volunteering abroad

Youth Challenge International
It offers a wide variety of volunteer programs

Peace Corps
A high-profile international volunteer organization

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