When and where did you volunteer abroad? What was your position?
I've volunteered all my life! When I was 21 I spent a year with Americorps (see Corporation for National and Community Service (Americorps) to access site) in Philadelphia working as an HIV counselor for high-risk populations. A few years later, I went with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) for their week-long Insight Abroad program in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Over the course of that week I volunteered at a home for elderly women. Two years later I went abroad with CCS once again; this time it was to Lima, Peru, where I worked with underprivileged children at a government daycare facility. And this year I'm going to Morocco with CCS!
What made you want to volunteer abroad?
I am originally from Guyana, South America, and growing up in a Third World country gave me a real insight into how hard things can be. Now that I am blessed a little (though definitely not living the high life!), I want to give back as much as I can in terms of time and resources.
How did you conduct your search for a position? What made you select the program?
I like CCS because they offer week-long options for going abroad. I'm a single mother and also a small business owner, so it's hard for me to get away for longer than a few days. This is why I want people to know that there are no excuses! If you have a burning desire to serve, you can make it happen. You just have to find the organization that will make that dream come true.
What was the biggest surprise about your volunteer experience abroad?
I have traveled the world extensively, but I've always stayed in hotels and behaved as a tourist. Going with my volunteer program, we stayed in a local host home and ate traditional cuisine three times a day. This approach to going abroad made me feel like I was much more a part of the culture than I would have been staying at a hotel. We got really immersed in the country. And working as a volunteer you also get to see the real, down-to-earth side of a culture, rather than just the posh areas. Getting this perspective really makes you appreciate what you have. There were definitely major cultural differences. People are more appreciative and grateful for what they have and they 'make do' in many of the countries I visit. I think as Americans, we live in a country where we don't respect the things we have -- and we constantly want more.
What made your experience successful?
I don't think you need a certain skill set or type of previous experience to make your volunteer placement a success. I would say having an open heart and open mind is what makes it successful for me.
How did you finance your trip abroad?
This was definitely the hard part; but you just have to be creative! CCS was very helpful, giving ideas about how I might go about fundraising. I reached out to my inner circle to ask for donations, and I also reached out to my clients (I'm a massage therapist). I was able to collect a little here and a little there, and in the end it all came together before my final payment due date!
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Have an open heart. Have an open mind. Be flexible. No matter your age, go abroad with the mindset of a student. You are there to learn and serve.
What did you miss most about home?
My kids... and definitely central air! Ha!
What are your future plans for going abroad?
I plan to go every two years until I can't walk anymore! I love volunteering; it's a humbling and wonderful experience. It reminds me to be grateful, thankful and happy for the things I do have and not worry so much about the things I don't have.
Uma is someone who volunteers abroad often, and she has developed all the essential characteristics required to immerse herself fully into other cultures. Since Uma is also a professional message therapist, I am assuming that she is in the "mid-career" phase. Given her love of travel and her generous spirit, she might want to consider going abroad for a longer period of time, possibly as part of her retirement or pre-retirement plans, or even on a gap year with her children. She might also consider combining her love of volunteer work with her professional credentials by working in international health or volunteering with a health-focused NGO. (Note: You must log in to MyWorldAbroad to access the links below.)
- The 50+ Worker Abroad offers many entrepreneurial strategies for going abroad in pre-retirement and retirement years. These strategies are equally applicable for mid-career professionals.
- Health Careers Abroad describes professional careers in the international health sector, including many volunteer positions working with NGOs
- NGOs & International Development describes how to work and volunteer within the NGO sector. This section contains numerous NGO profiles that are specialized in health services abroad.