The key to finding success in any career is getting experience in the field you want to pursue. While many people pursue gaining that experience through education and internship opportunities, there are also other ways to achieve this experience.
One is through volunteering. While opportunities to volunteer are plentiful throughout the United States, the opportunity to volunteer abroad provides a whole new set of career and life experiences.
Hannah Neumann of Lakeland, Minnesota can attest to that. Neumann spent 6 months volunteering for the SOTH Children’s Foundation, Inc., in Manila, Bagui and Zambales, Phillippines. Neumann worked as the marketing and communications manager at a home for orphaned and abandoned Filipino children.
Her duties were diverse, and the experience she gained was invaluable. As the marketing and communications manager she was in charge of communicating with supporters, major companies regarding sponsorship opportunities, organizing data and creating spreadsheets, fundraising and promoting the organization through events and media spots. She also worked in the classroom as a teacher and taught first grade through high school students on a variety of topics.
Neumann, who has an Associate of Arts degree in Biblical Studies, is also currently completing her bachelor’s degree through online courses. She hopes to return to the Philippines in the near future and has this advice for people seeking volunteer opportunities abroad:
If someone wants to pursue a volunteer opportunity in a foreign country, what are some necessary things this person needs to know?
- Make sure you have a valid passport and figure out what type of visa you will need for the particular country you are traveling to. If you can, find out where the nearest immigration office is located, and plan for the fees you will have to pay for visa renewal, or any other fees to make it happen.
- Unless you want to pay a lot of money to bring extra luggage, you probably won’t be able to bring very much with you. Make sure you pack any specific items you might need or that might be difficult to get in the country you’re going to (for example, if you are not sure if you will have access to filtered water, invest in a small portable filter or a filtering water bottle). If you are in an area where malaria is prevalent, bring along mosquito netting.
- Choose a reputable organization to work with, and if possible, try to talk to someone else who has worked with the organization and is able to give you some advice and tell you about their experience.
- Evaluate what you are good at and choose to work with an organization where you will be able to use those skills. Overseas volunteer work is not just limited to teaching English – you can drill wells for clean water, work at an orphanage, distribute food through a feeding program, or any number of different options.
- Always keep your safety in mind, especially when you are still getting used to living in a new country, and especially while traveling. Have a plan for any emergency situations.
- Utilize services like Skype to stay in touch with friends and family back home, and look into getting an international phone if you want others to be able to reach you easily.
What are some key traits that a person pursuing a volunteer opportunity must possess?
Neumann: A good volunteer has to have good communication skills and good problem solving skills and an ability to deal with stress and adapt to a new environment. Good physical health is important, too, since you could be living in extreme conditions with a very primitive lifestyle, depending on where you choose to volunteer. Also, you really do have to like people. If you are easily annoyed or if too much interaction wears you out, you’ll have a harder time than someone who is very patient and energized by being with people. Having a good sense of humor and a willingness to learn are essential! Most of all, it’s important for a good volunteer to have a compassionate heart and a real desire to serve and help others.
What are some things you’ve learned about volunteering abroad that you didn’t realize until you were actually participating in the work?
Neumann: Sometimes the culture in a different country is more difficult to understand than it first appears. The way that conflict is handled can be extremely different in a foreign country than it is in the USA, for example. This can affect daily life and relationships with other people without your even knowing it. Also, it’s good to be prepared for “weird” foods or customs, so that you don’t react in a way that will come across as rude when you experience something really different.
What are some misconceptions about volunteering that people don’t understand that you can let them know about?
Neumann: Volunteering is not always adventurous or fun – sometimes volunteers get stuck with the dirty work that no one else wants to do. You won’t always be viewed as a hero, and sometimes you may wish that you hadn’t signed up. If you want to volunteer just so you can travel or sight see, you are doing it for the wrong reasons and might not have a good experience. You have to really have a heart for the people you’ll be working with, and a lot of love and compassion.
What makes volunteering abroad so rewarding?
Neumann: Volunteering overseas is really a life changing experience. Not only do you have the chance to explore and learn about a new culture, you have the chance to make a huge impact on the lives of the people you work with and the new friends you make. It’s really about making a difference in the world, using your life to bring about change that will touch more people than you may know. For me, the most rewarding thing about volunteering was having dozens of little orphans at the organization I worked to have the children “catch sight of me walking past, scream my name and run over for a hug.” Advocating for the kids I worked with and knowing that their lives will be better because I was able to help in some small way makes all the hard work worth it.
What type of life/career and job skills do you think working as a volunteer teaches someone?
Neumann: There are a lot of skills that can be gained from volunteer work that can be very useful in the business world. Some of these include communication skills, organizational skills, an ability to work comfortably with people with a different set of norms and values, public speaking skills and more. Your ability to adapt to new situations, and perform well under pressure will also be strengthened by volunteering overseas. While volunteering, you may have very high expectations placed on you that push you and help you to gain confidence and leadership abilities. For example, during my time overseas I was placed in charge of visiting international embassies, speaking with Filipino celebrities and media figures, doing an interview on live radio, and quite a few other things that I really wouldn’t have imaged doing as a volunteer.
If you could tell someone who aspires to volunteer one thing, what would it be?
Neumann: I would tell someone who wanted to volunteer overseas to really prepare and to go into it with a great attitude and an excitement to learn about a new culture and way of life. My friends overseas told me that they really don’t like working with Americans because of the way they “boss” everyone around, try to change the organization’s systems of operations and their condescending attitudes. The attitude that you have as a volunteer and the way you act towards the people you work with will determine whether you have a good experience and build great relationships, or if you have a bad experience.
What has been the biggest surprise about volunteering?
Neumann: When I worked as a volunteer overseas I was surprised by how difficult communication was at times, even though most of the people I worked with spoke English as a second language well. It was the things you couldn’t see – the differing attitudes and cultural conditionings that we had – that caused most of the misunderstandings and conflicts that arose.
What types of training/preparation can one do before going abroad?
Neumann: It is extremely helpful to learn as much as you can about the country you’ll be working in before actually heading overseas. Learning at least a few practical phrases in the primary language of the country you’ll be traveling to can give you a head start in communicating with the people you’ll encounter. Knowing how to explain that you are lost or need help may just come in handy in an emergency situation as well. Studying a country’s culture is just as important as learning about the language. You will experience less culture shock if you take the time to study the traditions and customs of a particular area, and the native people will be pleased that you actually try to understand their ways and follow their cultural norms. Going even deeper, studying the political history, folk stories, music, or food of a certain culture will help you adapt even more quickly. However, realize that you can’t learn everything through books or in a classroom, and you will still be unprepared for some of the things you’ll experience.
What types of accommodations can one who volunteers abroad expect?
Neumann: Depending on which particular organization you volunteer with, living situations will differ. You may be required to live in a dorm with other volunteers, live in your own space on the campus of the organization, or find your own housing nearby. Living expenses can be difficult to deal with, since you will likely not receive any pay from the organization you work with, but the good news is that living expenses are quite low in most developing countries. Additionally, meals, transportation, and other necessities for volunteers may be provided. In order to make ends meet while living overseas, it’s a good idea to either ask for support from your friends, family, or church, or save up enough money to pay for your living expenses during the time you’ll be volunteering.
Related: Volunteer at an Orphanage Abroad