Volunteering abroad

Katie O'Brien

The nature of human beings is to help. When someone is struggling, it seems to be an innate characteristic to reach out and do what we can to make the situation better. A good friend offers advice; a better friend listens.

For some college students, volunteering is part of the overall university experience. After all, for most of us there won’t be a time in our lives that presents these opportunities to help again. Therefore, we need to take advantage of them now.

Last semester I had the opportunity to travel to countries in Asia and Africa where volunteer opportunities were presented to me. Let me note, I am in no way insinuating that I have an extensive knowledge of international volunteerism by my short time spent in these places. However, I did get a small taste of what these experiences are like.

Through my time both abroad and at home, I’ve been able to zoom my global lens in and have a few “lightbulb” moments where a few things that once seemed blurred began to make a lot of sense. From this, there are a few things I’d like to voice before students consider volunteering overseas and finish that Peace Corps application.

The United States doesn’t have the answer to every international aid problem. What works for Americans doesn’t necessarily work for people in other parts of the world. This is a hard truth, but true nonetheless. Approaching volunteerism with the idea that you know the answer to the problem, assuming there’s a problem to fix, can often create more harm than good. Your way of doing things isn’t always the right way; it’s subjective.

Volunteers must enter the situation asking the group they are helping what they need. The key is knowing when to listen. How would you feel if someone came into your hometown while it was in a vulnerable state and began to tell you what you need? That’s not how things work. Ask yourself what exactly the needs of others are and how to help them meet those needs, don’t simply give it away. Help people create a resource that is sustainable so they can meet their own needs when you eventually pack up and head home.

No good deed goes unnoticed. You can’t change the whole world, but you can change someone’s world, no matter how small of an impact you think you’re making at that time. The ripple effect is real and you won’t know the full outcome of the change you’re making unless you try and approach the situation correctly.

Author of “Beyond Good Intentions,” a book about the effectiveness of international aid based on her personal experiences circumnavigating the globe, Tori Hogan, explains how to “be a part of the solution,” on her website. Some of these suggestions can directly correlate to some college students on the fence about whether or not they are ready to make the commitment to participate in international aid.

She suggests to “start with yourself.” How can you provide aid to others if you aren’t living out the ideals you’d like to help perpetuate? Help yourself before you help others.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way trying to discourage anyone from participating in an international service trip. What I am encouraging, however, is to expand your knowledge before you step on that plane. Study the culture, study the people, do your homework. Figure out why you’re going and what effect your presence will have on the people you meet and interact with.

If you’re ready to leave home for an extended amount of time and do some good, point your moral compass north and decide what you stand for, then go out and do it.