Some people volunteer internationally because they are interested in having a new and interesting experience. Perhaps they want to meet people they would not normally meet or need a base where they can stay cheaply for a period of time while travelling. I knew that some international work experience would be helpful for a career in development and that the easiest way to get it was to volunteer. Besides, I had always wanted to go to Africa and if I could volunteer in Tanzania and combine travel and learning, I would have something to put on my resume at the end of it.
Volunteers usually have to pay their own travel and living costs. I also had to make a financial contribution to the program. You usually are encouraged to fundraise but the money probably comes from various sources. Some people think it is crazy that your expenses aren’t covered since you are going there to work. But many volunteers do not have the skill set that is needed to get paying jobs. Besides, most organizations needing help are small and poorly funded NGOs.
I would also say that you will probably gain much more from the experience than you will give. You are the one who has to learn to adapt to another culture and it is surprising how hard that can be. When you start, you’ll probably think that you can just show up and achieve great things but you will soon realize that such thinking is unrealistic.
There are lots of volunteer opportunities but it is important to do your research. A few of my friends organized their placement in advance and found out it wasn’t what they thought it would be when they arrived. Since they had already paid to travel to the country, they took the time to talk to people on the ground and all were successful in finding a good placement. So word of mouth can be best.
Before I decided to volunteer in Tanzania, I thought about travelling around Europe. That would have been fun but the volunteer experience was totally worthwhile. At times it was hard but I got a lot out of it—far more than had I just been a traveller.
This interview with Jessica Sunter has been condensed and edited.
© Riding the buses 2011