Where did you volunteer abroad? What was your position?
I’ve gone volunteering twice, both times were during reading week. In my first year of university, I traveled on a medical outreach trip to a small rural town just outside Managua, Nicaragua. In my second year, I was one of the student team leaders on a Habitat (see Habitat for Humanity: Campus Chapters) trip down to New Orleans. The experiences were completely different from one another.
What made you want to volunteer abroad?
I think I’ve always had the itch to go abroad. My parents have always loved traveling, so it really was instilled in me as a child. Volunteering locally is just as important, but being abroad allows you to absorb new environments, new cultures, which is a bonus to the volunteering.
How did you conduct your search for a position? What made you select your program?
I heard about the opportunity to go on reading week trips through my university and I thought, “What better way to ease into volunteering abroad?”
Describe the application process. What made you successful?
It involved a paper application and a carousel (group) interview. I think what made me successful was how I put myself out there during the interviews, because that’s really how you have to go about an experience abroad – you can’t hold back. In terms of the application, I can say that in the second year (when I was a part of the selection committee for applying students), we focused on assessing what the students hoped to gain, and how willing they were to absorb the experiences they would have.
What was the biggest surprise about your volunteer experience abroad?
In Managua, my biggest surprise was how trusting the people were towards us, since we were essentially foreigners and strangers. It was amazing to see the cultural differences, in simple things like accepting “help”, or even how much they prioritized their young and elderly. In New Orleans, I simply didn’t expect the repercussions that Katrina brought. I thought I had understood the disaster, but I couldn’t believe how far New Orleans still had to go to recover, so many years after the fact.
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities while volunteering abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
I think the most memorable was in Nicaragua. We learned to dance in the traditional style, which was just so different to what we do at home! It was a whole new type of social activity none of us had ever tried before. It felt very Spanish, with lots of hip movements; and it was very fast paced. I could tell that the dance was really important to the instructor and the locals, which made it even more enjoyable to learn.
What made your volunteer experience abroad a success?
Hands down it was the willingness to try new things. In terms of the actual volunteering, the fact that I pushed myself to do a Habitat trip was what made it amazing; to feel the accomplishment of surpassing my own perceived limitations. But more than that, it’s about trying the food, the dancing, talking to the people in the cities, and hearing stories. That openness is what makes a trip a complete success.
How did you finance your trip abroad and did you find any creative solutions to stay on budget?
I had the help of my parents, to be honest. But I know there are a lot of bursaries to help with these types of activities. As also know many people who did small fundraisers with programs geared towards this very thing. For example, in my area there’s a program that provides you with boxes and boxes of donuts, and for each box you sell, you make a certain portion towards your fundraising goal.
Did anything happen in your volunteer workplace that gave you particular insight into your host culture?
On my trip to Nicaragua, we prescribed medicine after visiting with sick patients, and we also ran a pharmacy with donated medication. One day we couldn’t fill the prescriptions for the children’s fever medications because we had run out. It meant that those who needed medication were simply unable to receive it. We learned a lot about the how patients have to deal with a lack of access to necessary medications. It was life changing.
How did you deal with the cultural divide during your volunteer experience?
I keep saying this, but it’s about opening your mind. When you go into the culture, don’t search for the differences and compare. Look for the similarities and appreciate the differences. Different never means worse or better. With our group, we also had reflective activities every night where we would try to better understand and internalize what we saw and did each day, which was helpful.
What was the most important thing you learned about communicating in a foreign culture while volunteering abroad?
It was honestly much easier to communicate with children than adults! They were much more into gesturing and pointing than the older community members, which made it easier to understand them and to be understood. Everyone was great and patient, but we really found the lack of ability to communicate verbally to be the biggest challenge of the trip. We take that for granted at home.
What was your return like? Do you plan to go abroad again?
Very difficult – especially being thrown back into school. I’d learned to appreciate a lot more of the things I had at home, though. After a while though, it became easy to kind of slip back into old habits. Routines are hard to change, and you probably won’t be able to reflect all the lessons you’ve learned on the trip in your daily life at home. But it’s there, in my head, and I’m always conscious now of how truly lucky I am. I definitely want to go again (I already did!). Each time, the return is harder, and the lessons stay longer. It’s just a gradual change. I’d say it kind of takes practice.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t hold back. Don’t be afraid of doing it. I’m a 110-pound girl who’d only lifted hammers to hang paintings on a wall, but I helped build a house, lifted walls, nailed in those walls, and built the foundation. If you hold back, you will never know what you’re missing.
What did you miss most about home?
Hot showers. Okay, that was the pampered middle class North American side of me speaking! I missed the comfort of home. Having my own bed, my friends near me, a routine…just the normal stuff that I’m comfortable with. But putting yourself out of your comfort zone is a key part of the trip, and I think it’s necessary.
Describe an experience from your time abroad that made a particularly strong impression on you.
Well, the lack of medication that I mentioned earlier definitely hit me hard. Another one was hearing multiple stories from the people of New Orleans about how they survived hurricane Katrina. I couldn’t believe how willing they were to share thoughts and memories about such a traumatic experience. I heard stories ranging from their pain of losing someone they loved, or how they had to evacuate the city that they’d grown up in. One man I talked to had just returned and was struggling with the memories. I went to the lower ninth district, which suffered the most damage in the hurricane. It was empty. I could still see front steps – without houses – and the homes had been washed away or destroyed, and replaced by overgrown weeds.
What is your future plan for going abroad and for your career?
I hope to travel to the Dominican Republic or Peru on an orphanage outreach trip this year. Beyond that, I have dreams to go to medical school in two years. If all goes well, my plan is to take the four-month summer before medical school and go on a “backpacking” trip around Europe. No hitchhiking will be involved, but I really think the experience would be amazing. I want to visit the countries and immerse myself in them, not travel as a vacationer in four-star hotels. It’s been the one dream I’ve had since I was a kid that has lasted with me all these years. I won’t be volunteering, but I think it will definitely be a huge step in terms of my personal growth.
We’d also recommend that she consider taking a few casual jobs while on her backpacking trek. A working vacation can be incredibly rewarding, as it minimizes the negative financial impact of long-term travel and allows you to build valuable cross-cultural communication skills.
Once Alyssa has built her medical skills at school, we’d recommend that she go abroad for three months or more to volunteer with an NGO in a developing nation. Once certified she could also be on call with disaster relief organizations as part of a first response team.
- The All NGOs resource list is a good place to start researching potential international volunteer opportunities with North American organizations. In particular, those pursuing medical degrees might be interested in the work of Doctors Without Borders USA (MSF USA).
- Read the complete Health Careers Abroad section to get a sense of what opportunities exist for health care professional with an interest in working internationally.