Working or volunteering abroad is one of the most exciting ways to use your gap year. However, far too many young people are taken advantage of because they have not adequately prepared to take care of themselves before they attempt to take care of others. It’s exciting and flattering to be accepted to work or volunteer abroad and in the fog of excitement it’s possible to get carried away forgetting some key elements of self-care. Here are our top five survival tips to make sure you have your own ‘oxygen mask’ well adjusted before you attempt to help others.
1. Going overseas doesn’t turn you into a different person
Don’t like getting up early to go to work at home? You’re not going to enjoy it any more overseas. Don’t like English grammar or working with kids? You’re not going to be magically transformed in another country. Look for opportunities that align well with the skills and talents you already have and everyone will be happier.
2. Just because they’re not paying you doesn’t mean you can be ignored
Your safety and security is critical wherever you are. If you are volunteering or working for an organisation which doesn’t take that seriously then speak up or quit. You shouldn’t compromise your well-being simply to get some experience on your CV.
3. If you see something that’s wrong report it
You are never too young or inexperienced to be an advocate for your rights and the rights of others. If you are working with an organisation and see theft, abuse, or other wrong-doing don’t let people tell you: ‘that’s how it is here’ – report it or break off association with the organisation. Don’t contribute to wrong doing.
4. Research any organisation before accepting a placement
If you haven’t had a job or work experience you might be tempted to work with anyone who will hire you or let you volunteer. This makes you more susceptible to working with, and for, people who are…how shall we put this?...skeezy. If something makes you uncomfortable with what you’re asked to do or how you’re asked to do it then politely decline the opportunity. There will be others.
5. Volunteering is usually more about you than about those you’re helping
It’s well documented that poverty is not alleviated by short-term volunteer positions. This doesn’t mean your placement isn’t necessary or that you won’t learn, contribute, and grow. Keeping some perspective about what you’re going to do and the impact you’re going to have can help you maintain some healthy perspective.
Oh, and here's a last one...even though it makes it technically six survival tips...
6. You don't have to give away your shoes
You will likely have more money and kit than any of the people you are working with. And, by all means take gifts or give away clothes you don't need at the end of your trip. But, you need your shoes. Just like you need money to buy food and pay for your hostel. Don't be guilted into giving away items you need to remain safe, happy and healthy.