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Making the Most of Volunteer Vacations

By guest blogger Leah Mayor, PhD

Volunteering abroad can be one of the most rewarding travel experiences. Choosing a pre-organized group trip means valuable knowledge, resources, and information will be available to help you integrate and immerse yourself in a new destination.

After living and volunteering abroad for more than three years in different countries as well as conducting years of research on the subject, here are a few tips to help you make of the most of your experience traveling abroad both as an individual and group traveler. 

Think about long-term impact.
Even if you are only volunteering for a few weeks, aligning yourself with an organization means that you are a part of an on-going relationship with a community.  Choose an organization that reflects the kind of relationship that you want to share with that community abroad and hopefully you will find ways to be a part of it even after returning home.

Know why you are going and align your motivations with your actions.
Not long ago, I spent 6 months helping volunteers acclimate to their new surroundings in Mongolia.  I worked with a woman who espoused that her main motivation was to immerse herself in another culture and learn from intercultural interactions.  Unfortunately, she spent most of her time in her tent avoiding the heat, the flies, and the very kinds of interactions that led her there. Clearly, her actions were not in-line with her goals. When volunteering abroad, you can expect to have to put more energy into situations simply because they will feel "new." Defining clearly your goals and intent will help you to reach out to more situations and opportunities so that you can achieve your goals and will lead to a more satisfying and transformative trip. 

Consider your skills and the destination.
Choosing a volunteer destination is not just about where you want to go on vacation. While many of us dream of riding through Mongolia on horseback or circumambulating Mt. Kailash this is not what the volunteer vacation is about. If you really want to travel to make a difference then your skills can help you determine where we go.  Consider the kind of impact you can make abroad.  When you are researching groups to volunteer with tell the organization about your skills and what you have to offer and see if they have any suggestions. Making an impact will help you to have the trip of a lifetime!

Do your research.
Nothing is more important before departure than knowing what you are getting into. Talk to people who have done the trip before, learn what kind of support you will have in your volunteer experience. Learn what you can about the kinds of people who choose the trip. Often Web sites and promotional materials show the best face of an organization. Talking to people will help you to assure that this is indicative of the actual experience there. There are some organizations that don't follow through in providing the kind of relationship with tourists or the community that they say they do.  Figuring this out is part of your job in ensuring an amazing volunteer experience.

Look inward and outward.
I have spent years working with international organizations and individual travelers to understand their motivations and experiences. While most of us emphasize the cultural understanding gained through travel, the truth is that our deepest insights are personal. Travel is a marvelous opportunity to come to a clearer sense of our own cultural lenses and to cut through limiting aspects of our own culture. When seen this way, time abroad can open an opportunity to live more authentically and free from cultural expectations. But it is important to not simplify the cultural codes of others. It is one thing to believe that "Life for Mongolians is simple." It is another to understand the meaning of this more closely resembles "Coming to Mongolia has simplified my life in ways that I hope to retain when I return home."

Bon voyage!

Leah Mayor holds a PhD in Adult Education from Cornell University and continues to conduct research and write about travel.


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