Lessons Learnt from Volunteering Abroad

Volunteers choose to help overseas for many different reasons. It provides an opportunity to give back to a community or make a difference in the world. Surprisingly you can gain as much, or even more, from volunteering abroad as the communities you are helping. Putting effort into helping others and working towards a cause teaches lessons which are priceless.

Here are some of the lessons learnt from volunteering abroad:

  1. Language

dan-gold-576524-unsplash.jpgWhenever I travel abroad I always try to pick up some of the local language. Learning “Hello, my name is…” and “what’s your name?” can get you far. Another great word is the local word for “good” or “beautiful”, people just love receiving compliments about them, their food or their children! Locals appreciate you trying to speak their language and make an effort too, I found I got treated better than those who just spoke loudly to them in English or not speaking at all. You will gain more respect if locals see you making an effort to fully immerse yourself in their way of life.

Learning the local language is especially useful when volunteering outside of a city. Shops owners in rural locations are less familiar with tourists and the English language. Learning how to ask “how much” in the local language is very handy, you don’t even need to learn the numbers you can get by with using your fingers.

  1. Simple Living

Learning to live simply for a while, quickly opens your eyes to how luxurious hot showers and flushing toilets are. Simple living can be fun once you get used to it. Showering with a bucket or hiking up a mountain to shower in a waterfall makes the everyday task of cleaning more of an adventure!

Simple living also helps you stop complaining about trivial annoyances once you have returned home. Running out of milk for your tea no longer seems like the end of the world.

  1. Living Without Wi-Fi

At home I was in such of a routine of waking up and spending half an hour scrolling through social media before starting my day. Volunteering abroad is a great way to cleanse yourself of technology. Only having access to the internet at the weekend and having to make an effort to head into town is liberating.

Rather than spending evenings all huddled around a screen watching a movie, we played card games and held quiz nights. It was enjoyable to see everyone living in the moment and not look up and see everyone’s eyes on a screen. People actually making eye contact, listening and engaging with you.

  1. Get Back More Than You Put In

Even doing something as simple as teaching primary school children the alphabet makes a difference, you are helping to build a base for their further learning. The feeling you get when you see your students progressing, which was all down to you, is priceless.

Even if you do nothing else than bring a smile to someone’s face, you will be making a huge impact and feel good.

  1. Appreciation Of Education

Seeing with your own eyes the school system of a third world country is eye opening, witnessing how little many children have. Their commitment walking an hour to attend a free class every day. It can help you reflect how much our education is taken for granted in the west and possibly how many opportunities you may have missed yourself, which the children abroad would’ve grabbed in a heartbeat.

When I returned home I felt a stronger need to put in more effort on my university course, I never missed deadlines and when I was feeling unmotivated, I thought of the children in Cambodia and Ghana knowing they would never get the same chance.

  1. Tolerance

Most of the volunteers I met whilst travelling were eighteen to twenty-one-year olds, although there were some more mature travellers too and volunteers from every type of background.

You can learn so much from each other, there was a cross section of society in some ways. Everyone sharing the common interest to have fun through helping others and I met people and characters I never would have come across in my social group at home.

  1. My Fussy Eating Had To Stop

I was a super fussy eater before I went travelling, this changed a lot! I wouldn’t consider a meal complete unless there was meat on the plate and butter for bread.

I met a lot of vegetarians and vegans on various volunteer projects, I became a lot more likeminded. After trying meals without meat and cheese, I found them surprisingly tasty.

In some less developed countries meat can be expensive. Because of the cost the locals tend to have vegetarian diets.

While I may not be vegetarian, I do now enjoy vegetarian meals on a menu, which I would’ve avoided before and can enjoy unbuttered bread.

  1. Budgeting

Without a bottomless overdraft I was spending less, I knew I had to make my money go further and once it was gone, it was gone.

I got so used to this, after the first week or two I didn’t even realise I was budgeting anymore, I had got over my holiday mind-set and simply wasn’t throwing my money around. When living in a cheap country it is not uncommon to spend very little.

Once I returned home I noticed I was still being frugal with my money and managed to save money towards my next trip.

  1. Responsibility

Before volunteering I always scraped by doing the least possible amount of work, never going beyond the minimum requirement.

This changed once I began volunteering, I realised that the children were relying on me to teach my class every day. There was no one to pick up after me if I couldn’t be bothered to go in. I couldn’t leave the children without a teacher and needed to see them progress with what I was teaching. It was not enough to sing head, shoulders, knees and toes every day! The children needed to learn the same as I did at school, although I had never taught before I discovered personal experience did count for a lot.

  1. Steer Clear Of Expensive Programmes

The difference in the price of an affordable programme and an expensive one unfortunately does not go towards the project. Paying more doesn’t mean helping the charity more. The difference generally goes towards the accommodation volunteers stay in and any extra staff like housekeepers.

Although I volunteered on both expensive and low-cost programmes I found a longer stay was only possible with a low-cost organisation. It was only by staying longer I learnt new skills and had the opportunity to train other volunteers how to teach. I did notice the pool of volunteers was also more diverse on the affordable programmes, you get to meet people from all walks of life, but it might depend what time of year you go.

Here is a list of websites for volunteering projects either I used or have been recommended to me:



4 thoughts on “Lessons Learnt from Volunteering Abroad

  1. Good stuff. I’ve been volunteering for the last 8 years or so, and I’m about to kick off a huge round the world volunteer journey too. I agree with all of these points that you mentioned.

    In addition to the last point that you made (#10) you should never have to pay for more than your living costs when volunteering. Be forewarned if you have to pay a program fee or something… the NGO (or whatever) should value your work and time more than your money.


  2. Love your post! I haven’t done any volunteering abroad, but I did Erasmus traineeship and I can relate to most of the topics you mentioned, except being fussy eater. 😛 I love food and with few exceptions would eat more or less everything.


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