More than any other generation, millennials (like myself) are looking for volunteer and work opportunities outside of the United States.
In fact, 84 percent of millennials said they would travel abroad to participate in volunteer activities.
International work doesn’t really care about someone’s best-laid plans.
I thought I’d be teaching English after getting my Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification. Instead, I found myself leading a lesson called, “The Pros and Cons of Keeping Wild Animals as Pets.”
Obviously, this topic was a bit outside of my area of expertise, but it didn’t sour me on the choice I made. It’s natural to see a charitable trip as an undertaking volunteers do for the sake of the less fortunate, but workers can benefit from the experience too. How much value they take away from their time abroad, however, all depends on how the trip is approached.
Do Away With Expectations.
In life, little (if anything) unfolds as imagined. Coming to grips with this Yiddish proverb helps:
“We plan; God laughs.”
By letting go of certain preconceived notions, people can draw that much closer to experiencing the richness of the unexpected.
The assumption is that a student coming in from TEFL training already has a working knowledge of the English language and can understand basic instructions and customs, such as raising a hand before speaking. Needless to say, showing students how to keep wild animals as pets wasn’t in my TEFL curriculum, but I had to roll with the punches and recognize the hand I had in molding my professional and personal realities.
Although a shift in thinking is often a byproduct of a big move, we shouldn’t presume that moving abroad will result in an overnight change in lifestyle. Some expect that a new place will instantly create new thoughts, new feelings and new actions that will pay immediate dividends.
It’s shocking how easy it is to move halfway across the world and never leave a comfort zone.
As the novelty of a new place wears off, people tend to quickly gravitate toward the framework of their old lifestyles.
Familiarity—be it personal or professional—is comfortable.
As quickly as people find themselves in new places, they can just as rapidly fall back into the same routines they had at home. If someone is a weekend warrior who lives paycheck to paycheck and hangs with a certain group of friends, she’ll more than likely seek the same connections once she’s in unfamiliar territory.
Change doesn’t happen automatically; it requires intentional action.
Working abroad can quickly become an economic exchange rather than an existential one. To just sit back with no deliberate effort to build relationships and experiences when working abroad is to miss an opportunity to share gifts with the community—it transforms a worker into a consumer.
Travelers are consumers. But those who work and volunteer abroad should aim to be more.
Decide to Grow and Learn.
Relinquishing expectations and deciding to actively learn, experience and make a difference is one way to reap the benefits of working and living abroad.
But what else is there to gain by volunteering internationally with a mindset of intentional growth?
1. A little patience: It’s fairly easy to do a short-term volunteer or work trip. Sure, everything is exciting, new and fun for a couple of weeks or a month, but falling in love with all of a home’s new flaws is crucial if the plan is to stay past the five or six-week honeymoon phase.
That annoying street noise, for instance, must become the soundtrack of the experience. Those unsettling smells, now, must carry a familiar, warm feeling. Fellow volunteers become an instrument of growth.
Tee, a student of mine, finished his third year of high school in New Zealand, and he had a pretty blunt question for me when he returned to Thailand: “Teacha, why you not tell me how messed up Thai school is? I will never send my children to Thai schools.”
I told him he could always keep his kids here and choose to make the schools better for that next generation. That patience—something I had to learn during my first days in Thailand—was something I could now pass on to my students to use in the future.
It’s all about pushing through the uncomfortable and unpleasant with patience and coming out on the other side with a new viewpoint and sense of accomplishment, even if things don’t go as planned.
2. An appreciation for lack of balance: Time abroad is limited, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be all about finding balance. Being in an unusual, uncomfortable place quickly brings what people value most into focus. Money, pride, fear, vanity and bureaucracy exist everywhere, but they take on a different tone in an unfamiliar environment.
My first experience teaching in a public school was in Thailand. After honing my classroom management and lesson development skills in that first year, I parlayed that knowledge into establishing and running my own program for two to three hours rather than an entire school day.
Throwing myself completely into that first year of work gave me the freedom to do things my own way thereafter. Now I have the freedom to focus on things I get more personal fulfillment out of, such as freelance writing and running my own charity.
Having a life-changing experience means letting go of the past and the people, jobs and personal goals that defined it. Do this, and the ability to explain what’s being done and why magically goes away. A logical explanation may appear at some point, but this is not the time.
3. An eye for beauty within the ordinary: There are many moments that don’t belong on postcards. Sometimes, feelings of loneliness and isolation from loved ones reiterate the value of traveling. They’re likely trying to be supportive and to show the trade-off is supposed to be worth it. Their excitement worsens those feelings of solitude because the gap in their experience can’t be filled with words.
There are moments of little white lies with family and friends to keep them from worrying (or when unfamiliar surroundings and the sense of not belonging overwhelms to the point that goals get lost.)
As difficult as it is, working abroad is full of the most inexplicably beautiful moments, some of which are never shared. It can be something as small as the sound a blue lizard makes or as large as taking part in an annual custom for the first time. The joy these moments bring only comes from stepping out and making the effort.
A summer-camper of mine, named Nong, dreamed of visiting the Thailand town of Phuket. So we spent the day there, doing yoga on the beach, riding scooters and going to a water park. Sure, the sights were beautiful, but the joy brought out of him that day—one he still calls one of the best times of his life—is something I’ll never forget.
Tackling uncomfortable experiences in a new home shows someone how to collect moments of beauty that lend strength during struggle. Choosing to work or volunteer in those strange lands can be something to do just long enough for some stories and pictures, or it can be an experience that alters beliefs and mindsets for the rest of someone’s life.
It just depends on the approach.
Author: Kathryn Dillman
Image: Kathryn Dillman Instagram
Editor: Sara Kärpänen