Curious about volunteering abroad alone? Learn from my successes and challenges

When it comes to volunteering abroad, it’s hard to figure out where or how to start. How long should you volunteer? Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? Should you volunteer abroad alone or with a group? We asked a member of the Idealist community to share her experiences finding, landing, and enjoying her international volunteer experience, as well as some challenges along the way.

by Nicole Ricchione

There are so many reasons you might decide to travel abroad alone. For me, it was about finding my independence. As someone who brings a friend along to everything — networking events, parties, even grocery shopping — I realized it was time for some serious self-reflection. I decided the best way to accomplish this was to do something that terrifies me: solo travel.

Beginning research

But, not only did I want to travel alone, I wanted to do something truly meaningful with my time. I decided to use my Spring Break week off from grad school to volunteer abroad.  Ironically, when I started looking at organized volunteer programs, many of these programs were too expensive and I wondered if I would be able to volunteer abroad at all.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon Eco Volunteer UP, a non-profit volunteer organization in Ecuador. The person who ran the program, Maria, paired volunteers with people living in farm villages in the mountains of the Cloud Forest outside of Quito. In addition to being more affordable than other programs — I paid a small admin fee of $200 to Eco Volunteer UP to cover its costs and a $50 fee for the week to cover the cost of home-cooked meals and stay with a host family – the program felt more grassroots.

After reading some reviews, I knew this was the perfect program for me. It would allow me to have the most possible independence without being completely on my own in a country (and continent) where I’ve never been and don’t fluently speak the national language. I also felt really good about supporting a small, woman-owned business in Quito.

Planning for my arrival

View from my window (Photo credit: author)

The days leading up to my trip, I was completely terrified and excited all at the same time. I barely knew any Spanish. What if Maria never picked me up at the airport? What if this was a complete scam? I had no backup plan and I knew that Quito wasn’t the safest city for women to be traveling in alone.

So, leading up to the trip, I did a lot of meditation to relax my mind and put myself at ease about my upcoming adventure. I also took a few Spanish lessons from my roommate, who is fluent in Spanish. She wrote down a few important phrases for me to remember like, “I’m a vegetarian”, “Does this have meat?”, and “I need directions”. I also did a lot of research about Eco Volunteer UP. And I knew my experience traveling abroad and common sense would be enough to keep me safe.

Setting all my worries aside, the day came and I landed in Quito. Maria’s boyfriend picked me up at the airport and together they drove me through the winding mountain roads just outside of Quito for what seemed like a good three hours. Then, we arrived in San José de Las Tolas, a village that probably consists of, at the most, 50 residents. Maria introduced me to Magdalena, the woman who I would be staying with and volunteering for. She spoke absolutely no English. It was quite the culture shock for my first day in a new country. Then, I was introduced to Rebecca, another volunteer staying with Magdalena. I was so relieved to have a girl around my age that knew English so that I wouldn’t be completely alone all week. As much as I wanted to do this on my own, being surrounded by only Spanish-speaking people was something I wasn’t ready to face.

Getting to work

Waking up early to help milk cows (Photo credit: author)

Language barriers aside, I was eager to help out. A typical day would consist of Rebecca and I waking up early to help Magdalena, a single woman who lived on the farm. We would milk cows, have breakfast, and then take a break to go out and explore on our own. We spent a lot of time wandering the mountain trails and hanging out with the locals. Then, in the afternoon, we’d help Magdalena with various odd jobs, like planting yuccas and tilling soil on her organic farm or helping set up for the village’s annual celebration.

The best part of my experience was getting to feel part of San José de Las Tolas. The local villagers gave Rebecca and I such a warm and friendly welcome and made us feel right at home. In total, probably only two people in the whole village knew any form of English, but I barely felt the language barrier because there are so many forms of communication that don’t require words. I also met an inspiring young man named Luis who learned English by interacting with all the volunteers who have stayed in town over the years and then practiced what he learned by emailing with them once they went back home. In fact, I kept in touch with Luis once I got back home so I could help him with his English and he could help me with my Spanish.

Are you ready to volunteer abroad?

If you want to fully experience a country and really immerse yourself in the local culture, there is no better way than volunteering through a homestay. I experienced things in Ecuador that I never would have experienced if I simply went to Quito or the Galapagos with a group and did the typical touristy things. Of course, I still have vacations where I tour and just take in the sights  — I’m going to Peru in a few weeks to hike the Inca Trail with a group and I’m very much looking forward to it — but there is a special connection that I will always have with Ecuador and the village of San José de Las Tolas.

Do you want to volunteer abroad but are nervous about taking the plunge? Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me for advice!

Nicole is an MBA student at Rutgers Business School studying social entrepreneurship, aspiring to someday start her own world-changing business. She loves traveling and writing and is currently the blog coordinator for StartSomeGood.com. Connect with her on twitter @nricchio or email her at nricchione [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Should you volunteer abroad on your own?

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You can see the world as a volunteer on your own; just think carefully before you go (Photo credit: Fr Antunes, Creative Commons/Flickr)

With summer in full swing, many people are looking to use their vacation time to give back by volunteering abroad. Fortunately, there are a ton of organizations that can help you find a great volunteer opportunity overseas. But what if you want to volunteer abroad on your own? Perhaps none of the programs you see match your interest or availability. Or maybe you’re excited by the idea of exploring a new country on your own. Before you book a plane ticket, think about the following pros and cons to volunteering alone in another country:

Pros:

You have greater control over your time and money: When you set out to volunteer abroad on your own, you control your budget, what kind of work you do, how long you stay, and whatever criteria are important to you when selecting a volunteer opportunity.

You can integrate volunteering overseas with travel and study: Because you are in control of your schedule, it’s easier to fit your volunteer experience in with other events like studying abroad and travel.

You can immerse yourself in the community: While many volunteer-sending organizations do encourage you to get to know the community you are helping, when you are abroad on your own you are more likely to interact frequently with local citizens and organizations instead of with program staff who may be from your country.

[Already set on volunteering abroad? Check out this list of questions you should ask before you go.]

Cons:

You have to face challenges on your own: Sick? Lost? Problems with your visa? Not happy with the experience? Unfortunately, when you volunteer solo, you’ll have to deal with these issues — along with other risks — alone.

You have to do much more research: You can lower the risks you encounter by doing as much research as possible before you go. However, even this can be challenging: while volunteer-sending organizations build relationships with local NGOs and have websites where you can explore opportunities, if you’re going on your own, you’ll have to find a way to get in touch with local organizations who might not be easily accessible.

You might be a drain on local organizations: If you aren’t fluent in the language, you’ll likely need more support to complete tasks. And for organizations that don’t have many volunteers, there is no guarantee that someone will be able to fill your role once you’ve moved on, resulting in much of the work you started being left unfinished.

There are more pros and cons to volunteering abroad on your own and we encourage you to explore them. However, the best way to get a sense of whether or not you should go alone is by talking to other volunteers. What did they love? What did they struggle with? And what, if anything, would they do differently?

Have you volunteered abroad on your own? Tell us about your experience!

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