It feels like there are a million and one reasons not to volunteer abroad. Homesickness. High costs of travel. The need to work and make money. Conscientiousness about savior complexes and privilege dynamics. But, for all of those aspects above that you should consider before volunteering abroad, there are plenty of reasons to buy the plane ticket and go.
If you know me, then it’s no secret that my Peace Corps service went wildly differently than expected. Then again, there is no cut and dry model for being a Peace Corps Volunteer! I landed in Ukraine to begin my service a year ago yesterday, and I’m feeling all kinds of sentimental. And, to top it all off, I’m currently planning a return trip to a mystery destination that holds a very special place in my heart.
Because of all of the above, I wanted to share some stories of volunteering abroad that made me the person I am today. These moments made all of the hardship and sadness at being away from home 100% worth it.
I hope they help you consider why volunteering abroad may be for you. That being said, I also hope you seriously consider all the reasons not to volunteer abroad, and use the resources available to educate yourself about your own place within a host country’s culture.
Alright, now let’s get down to it!
1 // Costa Rican students writing me farewell letters
My first ever time outside of the United States was a 5-week-long trip to Costa Rica for a service learning internship. My first placement was at an orphanage, because my primary placement, a school, was closed for my first week in the country.
Weeks two through four were spent with some of the most lovely people I have ever met. My schedule, created for me by the lead English teaching coordinator, was divided amongst all the grades in this school. I spent my days going from Kindergarten to 11th grade to serve as an assistant to local English teachers.
Most of my day-to-day included interacting with students, and providing extra assistance to reinforce the teachers’ lessons if they wanted it. I also sometimes graded homework assignments while the teachers led their classes. Whatever they needed, I was willing to do!
On my last day, the students in elementary school grades made me cards with sweet notes, decorated with drawings and stickers. Fourth grade even wrote me a paragraph in English about why I shouldn’t leave Costa Rica. Those students captured my heart, and I regret that I have yet to return to San José.
I still have those letters, and read them whenever I get the chance.
2 // giving free hugs with my Mamá Tica
Part of the service-learning internship program I mentioned in story #1 was a homestay with a Costa Rican family. My family included a host mom, Marta, her daughter, Laura, their Dachshund, Wanda, and three American girls: Ashley, Kate, and Mallory.
This living situation was an absolute blast. Marta is quite possibly the best host mom on the planet, and my experience was made by living with her.
One of Marta’s trademarks is her free hugs, or abrazos gratis. She has signs in different languages, all of which translate to “free hugs.” Then, we would stand in the center of San José and give free hugs to strangers. I know it may sound strange to those of us raised with a distinct idea of personal space, but it was amazing. The most amazing part however, is that Marta would holler, “¡Abrazos gratis, y NO BESOS!”
She didn’t play games when it came to her chicas. No creepy men getting any kisses over here! Not with Marta around, at least. This day was one of the best I’ve ever had while volunteering abroad.
Mil gracias por todo, Marta. Usted es inolvidable.
3 // phone conversation with a Make-A-Wish child
Fast forward a year and a half from my five weeks in Costa Rica. I’m studying abroad in Barcelona, and my program includes the option to do a semester-long internship. Naturally, I choose to do a service-learning style internship again, and this time it’s with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Since Make-A-Wish is a huge international nonprofit, they have country headquarters all around the world. It just so happens that Spain’s Make-A-Wish headquarters are in Barcelona, with another office in Madrid.
Most of my main duties were to design wish kits for Spanish children going on their wishes out of the country, and for children coming to Spain for their wish. I worked closely with the social work department, a welcome change from development and into the world of nonprofit programming and implementation.
One of my duties that intimidated me quite a bit was answering the phones…in Spanish. Yikes.
I severely underestimated my skills and Spanish level, so this was daunting. However, there was one call that confirmed my worst fears, and later became heartwarming.
On this day, I was sitting at the front desk instead of inside the main office space. I answered the phone, and a little girl started speaking to me in rapid-fire Spanish. But, her accent was one I had never encountered before. I was intrigued, baffled, and left speechless. As per my training, I transferred the call to one of my supervisors.
After a few minutes, my supervisor comes down the hall with a huge smile on her face. As it turns out, I was on the phone with a 6-year-old wish child. Despite the pep and positivity in her voice, she was chronically ill and her family was struggling. She was out-of-this-world excited for her very own wish day.
And, as it turns out, the reason I couldn’t fully understand her Spanish is so interesting. This little girl and her family live in Morocco, and are Spanish-speaking. As a result, her accent is shaped by her understanding of Arabic and French. This six-year-old spoke three languages. That. Is. Awesome.
4 // my first host mom in Ukraine telling me I make her proud
If you read my posts on Soul of Serenity about my Peace Corps experience as it was happening, I wrote about my first host family and how difficult it was to know I was leaving them soon. Towards the end of my time with them, my host mom, Olha, had a friend over.
As all babusyas and mothers do, Olha told her friend all about her two daughters (her biological daughter, Dasha, and me). She raved about Dasha’s school work, and about the young American girl living with her family for the next few weeks.
Because I’m vegan and had a pretty hard time finding food in the restaurants of my training city, I cooked for myself and took lunch with me to work. Olha had seen me cook, how I got ready, and was pleased overall. She told her friend that I make her a proud Ukrainian mother, because I know how to feed myself and how to put on my makeup.
These aspects of womanhood were incredibly important to Olha, and she respected me in these ways. I am honored that she was proud to be my first Ukrainian mama, and I will be grateful to her for the rest of my life.
5 // seeing my graphic design work in print for the first time
Fast forward from story #4 by a few months, and I’m in my permanent site. I’m partnered with an NGO that is transitioning into a community foundation. This isn’t my first time volunteering abroad, but it is my first time in Eastern Europe, living in a community as the only American, the only brown person, and I’ve never worked at a community foundation before. I’ve only worked with orgs that partnered with them.
As it turns out, my main role with this NGO is marketing. I’m in Canva doing graphic design projects every day for social media channels. Mind you, I’m no professional graphic designer. I’m self-taught, through a nonprofit internship, but my work reaches a much wider audience than expected. I’m learning heaps every day, and I’m providing expertise in areas the NGO nor I even knew would be necessary.
Then, one day, the NGO decides they want to print some of these posters to hang in local businesses that serve as its partners. There it was, folks. My very own poster that took hours to make, went through rounds of edits, and it’s in my hands. A physical copy. Wow.
I’m glad that my host org could use my skills, and that they seemed interested in what I could contribute to our mission. I’m even more glad that we learned to work together across cultural boundaries and differing work styles. That’s what it’s all about!
6 // witnessing more local involvement with my host NGO in Ukraine
Many people ask, “What is the point of the Peace Corps? Of volunteering abroad period? Why not just volunteer at home?”
These are all great questions. Many people like me that volunteer abroad have probably asked them at one point. There were times I felt it wasn’t worth it. That I should have stayed at home. Even if my experience was positive, I’d feel guilt because I put my family through too much heartache. It’s always a Catch-22.
One of the main things I took away from Peace Corps training is this: set goals for your service that have nothing to do with whether or not your org will work with you.
I had many goals along these lines, but one of them was to see more local involvement in the nonprofit sector. Although most Ukrainians do trust the nonprofit sector, according to many surveys, they do not directly engage with them.
By my third month at site, my host organization went through many changes within its team and invited a Ukrainian strategic planning facilitator to conduct a session. My counterpart invited two women in our community that were not involved, but had interacted before with the organization. One of them was my second host mom, and a friend of mine. The other had seen me walking to work, and we exchanged a passing hello.
Unfortunately, I was sent home on a medevac just days after this strategic planning session.
I later found out that the two women I hoped would become more involved in the NGO did just that. Their photos and bios were in the annual report for 2018, and the NGO continues to do an incredible job. I can’t wait to see all the work they’ll do for the community of Vita-Poshtova ta Yurivka!
bringing it all together
Volunteering abroad is difficult. It calls you to be malleable, teachable, and brutally honest with yourself about your intentions. For every moment you doubt the experience, it gives tenfold. If you think volunteering abroad is for you, then please, please educate yourself, acknowledge your privilege, and actively deconstruct it.
Oh, and once you’ve done all that, buy the plane ticket. Just buy it.
*Cover photo by Alina Fedorchenko. Thanks, Alina!
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