3 Qualities International Volunteers Must Have

September 24, 2013 Kristance Harlow
Yangchen Choling Monastery, Spiti Valley

In an earlier blog post I wrote about graffiti in the parks of Buenos Aires and shared a photo of art at Plaza Los Inmigrantes, I have more to tell you about Graffiti Mundo and the work being done in the Olivos barrio. The picture to the right was taken by Cris, Ale’s mother who dedicates her time to helping the homeless. The man in the photograph, she told me, was sick with AIDs. He was ecstatic to be a part of the project to beautify the square, to be surrounded by people all supporting the same goal of making the invisible visible. His exuberance shines through the photo and you can feel his concentration and dedication to his work in that moment. It was only two days later that he died from his disease.

I nearly cried when Cris told me that heart warming story. She volunteers at a local homeless shelter every week and is involved in as much philanthropy as she can fit into her schedule. This is her neighborhood and she wants to do whatever she can to make it better and to help those in need. Being involved in volunteerism where you live is admirable and important, but what about those of us who volunteer abroad? How do you know if what you are doing abroad is ethical? What can you expect in an international volunteer experience? This post won’t answer all of those questions, but today I’ll tackle one important question: What kind of qualities does an international volunteer need to possess?

1. Patience

First you must be patient, without patience you can never get involved as a volunteer. Wherever you go you are entering a new environment. Think about when you visit relatives and friends and stay in their home, that household already has it’s own rhythm and you have to find a way to step in time with it. Now imagine that and you are among people you don’t know, in a country that you may not speak the language well if at all. Their entire culture marches to a different drum than your does.

The girls had fun no matter what they were doing.

The way other countries actually work varies greatly. While you may prefer to work through a project that has a tight deadline from beginning to end with few breaks so as to get it finished, the country you are volunteering in may take a more relaxed approach to work and expect to have multiple breaks to chat about non-work related topics, drink tea, and go out to eat. Part of your job as a volunteer is to get the job done that you’ve volunteered to do, but the other part is to not impose your culture on theirs.When I was a volunteer teacher in India patience was my saving grace. That summer the nunnery was undergoing major renovations, they were adding an entire new wing to the main building as well as constructing a separate building that I never did learn what it was really for (there was talk that it would be a hostel, but I still don’t know). On a regular basis the girls would have to work on construction and class would be canceled, and there was nothing I could do about it. I had to grin and bear it and find some other way to occupy myself. I spent my free time reading books, writing in my journal, or taking photos of the landscape. You may find yourself in as isolated of a situation as that, and you need to prepared to just be patient.

2. Reliability

Whether you are funding your own volunteering trip or if you’ve received a scholarship to go abroad, you are making a commitment and you have to be reliable. Your hosts are putting their energy and time into orienting you, training you, and even befriending you. Volunteering abroad is not a vacation with a cheap place to stay. You have a responsibility to perform the duties assigned to you and respect the people who are investing in you. You cannot just take off on mini-vacations when you want and only work when you feel like it.In India I was extremely ill the entire time, I didn’t adjust to the altitude in the Himalayas properly and I was suffering from debilitating e coli that made me sick at inconvenient times all day and all night. I could hold nothing down except a kind of ramen noodle that we got from the village store. I’m sure my digestive issues were compounded by my undiagnosed food allergies, either way I spent a lot of time in bed and while I missed a lot of meals with the nuns I didn’t miss class. Luckily I was teaching with another person so she could pick up my slack when I couldn’t get out of bed, but my responsibility was to my students and I never forgot that.

3. Humor and Humility

In all my travels I have found the most useful tool I have in my arsenal is humor. Laughing with people in different countries, who speak different languages, and practice different cultural values, is a unifying experience. Humor goes hand in hand with humility, because without humility your humor will only go as far as to make fun of others rather than find humor in your own confusion and differences. You have to be humble enough to accept that you are a stranger and that you will make mistakes in the culture you are volunteering in. As long as you can laugh about it, everything will be ok.

The crew waiting for one of our many bus changes.

When I volunteered on an organic farm in Ireland I was 20 years old and it was my first time abroad. I was volunteering with a group of people all from different places. We represented six countries and five languages. How did we get along so well? By laughing together. We took a trip to see the Cliffs of Moher and being the only native English speaker I took on the job of arranging our transportation by finding out the bus timetables for getting there and back.

Well, turns out even though I spoke the language I could still get confused in that foreign land. We misunderstood the time of our last bus and missed it! Everyone was turning in circles, hands on our heads we had no idea what to do. How much was a taxi? How did we even get one in this isolated location? Through a series of confusing conversations with the staff at the gift shop and two different bus drivers, we figured out that through a series of bus switches we could get out of there that night. Thankfully I was surrounded by a group of funny and kind people who all were able to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation.

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  1. Rose on September 25, 2013 at 3:32 am

    I definitely have the patience part down. I have often been told by friends and family that I am the most patient person they know. Good points to land on!

  2. mplanck on September 24, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    A thoughtful post that should be helpful to anyone contemplating international volunteerism. I hadn't realized until now how ill you were in India (Tibet?) Linking humor to humility (and patience?) illustrates a major shift between looking on and looking in…when we can laugh at ourselves, we invite people in. Good job!

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