Today’s guest post is by Carley Clement
Volunteering Abroad: Discovering the Heart of a Nation
When I came to Ecuador in 2014, I came with a guidebook in hand, pages dog-eared and highlighted with ideas for traveling and tourism for the next several months. I had first visited Ecuador as a tourist in 2012, but this time I was back for much longer, to work as a volunteer Program Director at Manna Project International, a non-profit on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, Quito. I didn’t know what was in store for me then, but two years later I’m still in Ecuador, and have gotten to know Ecuadorian culture inside and out—better that I ever would have just traveling around the country.
There are certainly moments where I would enjoy the freedom of a serial traveler: I would have be able to check off more cities on the long list of awesome places to visit in Ecuador, I would have a freer schedule… but I know that volunteering abroad was the right choice for me. I wanted to push myself outside my comfort zone and know a new culture and new people. There’s simply no better way to do that then becoming part of a local community, and giving your time and energy to work with locals to make it even better.
Here are my Top 3 benefits of taking the plunge and volunteering abroad:
- You will connect with a local community in a way tourists and travelers can only dream of.
While each volunteer abroad program is different, the best ones will allow you to spend ample time working with locals and getting to know them on a personal basis. This is the number one key to accessing the culture of a place: getting to know its people. In spending time with Ecuadorians I have learned the great importance they place on family, hospitality, and community. An Ecuadorian grandma taught me how to make traditional empanadas out of plantains one Saturday afternoon. Connections that I made from my volunteer job told me about the country’s Carnaval traditions, and brought me along for the fun to a small town in the middle of nowhere, somewhere I never would have seen had I stuck to the advice of my Lonely Planet. There are gems just waiting to be discovered in the everyday moments wherever you go, and volunteering abroad can be the key to discovering them.
- You will see your language skills improve ten-fold.
Think about it- how often when you’ve traveled have you had to use a language other than English. Depending on how adventurous of a traveler you are, probably not that often! If learning another language is a priority for you, there is no better way to do that then volunteering abroad. Find a program that includes language lessons with an accredited local school, and then dive in to talking community members…even invite yourself over to dinner one night! Don’t let fear of making a grammar or vocabulary mistake stop you from practicing; every time I’ve ever made a mistake while speaking Spanish to my Ecuadorian friends and neighbors they’ve been gracious, and are happy that I take time to push myself outside of my comfort zone to get to know them.
- You will receive much more than you will be able to give.
Do you think that volunteering abroad is blood, sweat, and tears? Think again! While it won’t be a resort vacation, volunteer organizations are aware that most volunteers are also looking for a genuine cultural experience beyond hoping to contribute to an important project. Volunteer abroad programs of all durations are likely to include language classes, cultural activities such as dance or cooking classes, excursions, and more. Beyond these perks, you’ll have the opportunity to work with locals, spend time with community members, and get to see a side of the culture you’d never be able to see as a tourist. By giving back you’ll feel much more connected to a place, and will have a richness of experiences being shown a new country by the locals that you’d never get a chance to enjoy as a tourist.
As a volunteer, you will likely have to give up some aspects of your trip that you had planned; you may not get to see every site listed in your guidebook, or try every delicious restaurant around town (they were probably out of your price range anyways). But what you will gain is a deeper experience with the culture a place, and with its people. With time photographs may fade, you may forget museum visits or nights out, but you certainly won’t forget personal relationships formed with community members, or projects that you worked on that benefited a community in need.
Author Bio: After graduating from NYU in May of 2014, Carley Clement followed her passion for Latin America to Sangolqui, Ecuador. She currently works for the nonprofit Manna Project International as Senior Program Director, and spends her free time cooking Cuban food, traveling, and playing with street dogs. Follow Carley on her blog, on Twitter and Instagram.