We asked a number of former volunteers what had motivated them to work overseas: the answers show that there can be a wide range of reasons for making the decision to pack up and go. Information on all the organisations named can be found in the directory. Some saw it as an opportunity to help them make bigger decisions about their lives:
- Natasja, who went with Volunteer Africa to Tanzania for three months, says that she decided to volunteer “because I had always wanted to go to Africa. I was in between jobs and didn’t know where I was going (maybe not the best reason in the world but it helped with my life making decisions)”.
- For Eleanor, a volunteer with the Colobus Trust in Kenya in 2004, “after I finished university I was unsure what direction to take regarding my future and so I took a year out. I felt it was a worthwhile thing to do during this time”.
- Max, who volunteered with AIESEC in 2004, was specifically motivated by a desire to volunteer in India: “I didn’t decide to go overseas but to go to India; a country so culturally rich and interesting that you have to experience this culture once in your life.”
Some found that their interest in volunteering was prompted by their work or what they had studied:
- Anna, who volunteered with SPW (Student Partnerships Worldwide) in Nepal from 2001 to 2002, says that before she decided to volunteer, “I was working with a fundraising company, fundraising for several well known charities. From that work, I developed a keen interest in development work overseas. It seemed like a great opportunity to make a difference and experience a completely different side of the world at the same time.”
- According to Anne, who volunteered independently in Laos and Thailand in 2004, “I have a degree in anthropology and have studied about development and learnt how aid is often misdirected and ill conceived. I knew I would only see a small part of the picture but felt that by doing some voluntary work I would at least experience some of the immediate issues.”
Generally speaking, however, while individual people can have one main reason to go, most of us go for a variety of reasons. For example:
- Gráinne, who volunteered with SPW in Tanzania, explains that she went for “a couple of reasons, some idealistic, some selfish: I was interested in development as a career; I wanted to go to Africa; I was a teacher and felt I had something to offer; I didn’t feel that I could watch the AIDS crisis unfold and not do anything about it; I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could manage with the isolation, the lack of electricity and running water and a new language or two”.
What is most important is to remember that your motivations can have a big impact on your expectations for what a volunteer placement will be like, and on what your experiences will be like when you go overseas.
“Reasons why volunteers have made an impact are:
- long term commitment that they are willing to give to the organisation;
- patience to understand and assimilate the development context and responses;
- openness and initiative in identifying areas of work and making positive contributions; and
- cultural adaptability”.Gram Vikas, Rural Development Organisation, India.
So what words of advice do former volunteers have for people who are considering their options? Their suggestions cover all aspects of planning a placement, from thinking about why you want to go, to the best kind of attitude to have when you arrive in your host community.
Before you go:
Claire suggests that people thinking of volunteering should put some work into researching all aspects of their placement before leaving Ireland: “Do research so you know what to expect in terms of what type of clothing you should wear, the type of food you will have to eat, injections you will need, etc. Go with an open heart and mind, you will learn much more than you could ever give.”
Lynn recommends that volunteers should question their motives before undertaking a placement, as well as doing practical things such as learning the language: “Ask yourself why you want to go; be sure you are going for the right reasons; learn as much of the language before you go; be prepared for any eventuality”.
Anna: “It is important that you are doing it for the right reasons. It is not a holiday but, having said that, you can take time to enjoy the experience from a tourist perspective too. Be willing to adapt to a foreign culture and accept what may seem strange initially”.
Orla recommends examining both your motivations and the type of programme you’re going to do: “Think very carefully about the type of programme you want to do and why you want to do it. There is such a huge variety of programmes available, you will find one that suits you. Most importantly you must respect the culture you are going into. Never try to impose your culture (even in simple things like how you dress) and always try and learn as much as you can from the people who live there. They know more than you do about what they need!!!”.
While you are there:
Anne has advice for people on their arrival in the host community: “Be humble, you are a guest in their land, live by their laws and their customs. If you cannot do that consider leaving and see leaving as a personal learning experience.” More general suggestions include “Bring an open and positive attitude; be prepared to mix it at all levels; read up in advance about the country and ask questions” (Pete). Eleanor emphasises the importance of being flexible in your ideas and beliefs: “Be prepared to change your ideals: what we perceive to be true is not always right - no matter how prepared you think you are”.
The main thing, as Gráinne suggests, is that volunteers be adaptable and realise that they are there to learn more than teach: “Throw yourself into what you’re doing…it gets easier as you learn the culture and the language. The main thing to realise is that you’re the one with the disadvantage knowledge-wise.” This is echoed by Anna: “I … learned so much from such an amazing group of people. It was an equal exchange of cultural knowledge and experience.” And she finishes by quoting a former student: “As one pupil recently wrote to me: ‘simple live and high think’.”