Volunteering abroad long-term is an amazing experience. You gain the opportunity to travel abroad, experience new cultures, learn new languages and push your personal boundaries. In volunteering abroad, you’re able to use your skills to make a difference in the world. You make memories and friendships that will last with you for a lifetime. There are so many reasons to go abroad to volunteer long-term (but that’s a post for another day). But, there are some things they don’t tell you about long-term volunteering. And, as someone who went abroad to work with non-profits, I wish there is a more honest conversation about the positives and negatives of volunteering abroad.
You start to really miss home
I’m not talking missing home as in your family (see below). I’m talking about missing how things are done at home. In a foreign country, almost everything will be done different. You’ll miss strange things (why are regular oreos available in Guatemala but not double stuffed and why do they taste different?!) about back home. More than once I’ve caught myself thinking “back in the US this is so much easier”. And quite frankly, there are times I really miss the seemingly easiness of things in the US or the apparent efficiency. But, if I never moved abroad, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate how things are where I grew up. Nor would I be open to new experiences or ways of doing things.
Time with family becomes much more important
When living in the States, I didn’t appreciate family time like I do now. I knew I could always hop in the car and head to my parent’s house whenever I wanted to. Living abroad, it’s not so easy. Plane tickets are expensive and traveling for a day isn’t exactly on the top of my fun list. Now, when I am back in the US with friends and family, I really appreciate it and soak in as much time with them as I can. I’ve even noticed I’ve become more sensitive about family time. Whether it’s Christmas, a birthday or a random week I’m in town, I realizes it bothers me some when friends or family don’t put the same importance on spending time together.
Not everyone is nice
One of the things they don’t tell you about long-term volunteering is that not everyone is nice. In whatever organization you are in, there’s always going to be someone who isn’t very nice. Going abroad, I didn’t expect everyone I came in contract with to be my friend. But, I also didn’t think I would come across people blatantly being mean to me. In your organization there may be people who don’t like you, for whatever reason, and go out of their way to be nasty. This is life. This happens at ‘normal’ jobs in the US to. Chalk it up to pushing your personal boundaries and let them deal with themselves. Don’t let this persuade you against moving abroad, but also prepare yourself.
You’re never going to understand all aspects of the culture
Another thing they don’t tell you about long-term volunteering is that, no matter what, you’re never going to understand all aspects of the culture. My home base has been in Guatemala for over a year and a half now. I married a Guatemalan. Still, there are some things about the culture that I still don’t, and likely never will, understand. And that’s ok. It’s difficult living in another country with a culture that is very different to yours and no understanding why certain things are happening. I’ve gotten myself in sticky situations or been super frustrated because there are still aspects of the culture I haven’t mastered. Sometimes I look at my husband and say “whatever” when he’s insisting on doing something that doesn’t make sense. It’s a fact of life. Make the best of it and continue to be opening to learning and growing.
You second guess your decision
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve laid in bed thinking what the heck did I do. Moving abroad turns your whole world upside down. It brings challenges you never thought you’d ever have to face. And, it makes you really question your decisions (especially when all the above things start adding up). It’s ok to question yourself as long as you don’t doubt yourself. You moved abroad for a certain reason. Whether it’s to experience new culture, learn a language, travel the world or make a difference, you came here for a reason. Remember that in the hard times. I remember why I left when I see one of the kids smile or see the scenery of the country I am in. I know I made the right choice and all of the struggles are worth it to be able to make a difference in the lives of the kids and see the world.
Are you a long-term volunteer overseas? What experiences have you had that you wish you knew before taking off? Do you regret your decision to volunteer long-term? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!