5 Lessons I Learned after One Year of Volunteering Abroad

February 19, 2015
5 Lessons I Learned after One Year of Volunteering Abroad

As a 30-year old woman, I took a gap year. I had spent nine years in corporate sales and needed a break. While I enjoyed my job most of the time, I had this feeling in my core that I needed to do something more – something meaningful, adventurous, and completely out of the “box” that I so regularly operated in. So, my husband Mike and I decided to take a 250-day, 20-country traveling sabbatical in order to follow our passions for traveling and giving back.

We wanted to travel in a way that connected us to local communities and allowed us to see and experience things that would be impossible as traditional tourists. So, we chose to not only visit each country but to spend time volunteering and working alongside locals in five different projects.

I am not quite sure what I expected from our time on the road. I knew that I would see iconic sites, taste exotic foods and meet unforgettable people. I knew that the experience would profoundly impact me but I did not necessarily think it would change me.

But it did.

The journey led me to question everything, re-consider my priorities, reassess my values and re-learn how to be me. More importantly, my nine months engaging in volunteer travel shifted my perspective on the world and taught me some valuable life lessons.

5 Lessons I Learned after One Year of Volunteering Abroad

1. When volunteering abroad – good intentions are not enough.

Volunteering abroad can be positively transformative for both the volunteer and local community. When done well, travelers develop new and valuable skills, solidify a commitment to service, and grow in their understanding of diverse cultures. Communities can also greatly benefit by gaining human and financial capital, cultural exchange, and future supporters for their work. However, these results do not happen JUST because you show up with good intentions.

Mike and I learned – the hard way – that proper care must be taken prior to engaging in any international volunteer project. As sad as it is, we witnessed some projects that take jobs away from the local community and others that are set up with the sole intention of attracting Westerners. While in Nepal, for instance, we thought we would be working alongside local teachers but we were instead put in a classroom and asked to teach instead of the teachers. And without any formal teaching experience or curriculum! I was appalled and uncomfortable and – ultimately – found a different use for my time on the project.

My big takeaway was that is up to us as travelers to sort the “good” projects from the “bad.” My advice? Do tons of research. Ask good questions. And try to gain an understanding of the role you will be playing while on site before you take the plunge.

2. The happiest people I have ever met prioritize relationships over money.

“Money doesn’t buy happiness.” I am certain that you have all heard this before. And, chances are, most of you reading this would agree with this statement, right? Prior to my trip, I would have nodded blankly and concurred that this phrase is true. I might have even gone as far to say that I thought I understood this idea. But, it was not until I traveled to developing nations and lived with local people that I really “got” it.

After living with a family of four in Nepal, becoming part of a Cambodian household in Phnom Penh and camping in heavy-duty tents in a small village in Zambia, I encountered individuals that seemed truly happy. The families we lived with in our homestays did not have much in terms of material possessions and, by American standards, would be considered poor. Yet, they lived in close proximity to their family and friends, shared EVERYTHING with one another and expressed joy on a daily basis. This happiness came from relationships, community and love – never from money.

5 Lessons I Learned after One Year of Volunteering Abroad

3. People are more similar than different.

From New York to New Zealand to New Delhi, people all seem to seek the same things: love, acceptance, peace and community. Sure, the way in which we express ideas, dress ourselves or prepare our food varies. We may worship a different god or hold different definitions of success. But I have found time and time again that, if you are open minded and humble, connecting with humans from across the globe is surprisingly easy.

From Igor the Ukrainian taxi driver that we bonded with over beers and borscht (and still keep in touch with) to Naomi, the selfless entrepreneur from Ghana, who has now become our business partner, Mike and I found friends and similarities in the most unexpected places.

5 Lessons I Learned after One Year of Volunteering Abroad

4. Before you do anything abroad (especially volunteering) ask yourself if you would do it in your own country/town/home.

This was a major shift in perception for me. Why would you engage in any activity abroad that you would not do in your own country? But it happens all the time. In fact, Mike and I made this mistake while volunteering at a children’s home in Thailand. It became immediately apparent that I was in no way qualified to work with such a vulnerable population. I would never dream of going into a daycare in the U.S. and assuming I could add value. Why did I think I could make a meaningful impact doing this in a foreign country?

5 Lessons I Learned after One Year of Volunteering Abroad

5. You will never be able to look at the world the same way.

You don’t have to travel for an extended period to be impacted by your experiences. I have been BLOWN AWAY by the lasting impact my trip has had on the way I live my daily life. I actually cried the first time that I went into an American supermarket after my journey. Something about the abundance of fresh and well-lit food moved me to tears. I now take shorter showers, recycle and allow life’s little annoyances to roll off my back. Travel affects everyone differently, but I always tell other wanderlusters to be prepared to return home from traveling with the same eyes but actually seeing the world through a different lens.

5 Lessons I Learned after One Year of Volunteering Abroad


About Kathryn Pisco

Kathryn Pisco is a social entrepreneur from Chicago with a passion for travel and giving back. She grew up in Columbus, Ohio and attended Cornell University where she received a Bachelor’s of Science in Communications and Business.

After years of working in sales for large corporations, she took a career break with her husband in 2013 and traveled the world doing a mix of personal travel and volunteer work. While she took part in some phenomenal volunteer projects, she also discovered some of the negative aspects about the international volunteering industry: lack of financial transparency, and absence of meaningful volunteer training, and a shortage of community driven projects.

So, she returned from the trip inspired to create her own social venture –Unearth the World– that strives to improve the volunteer travel industry by promoting cross-cultural learning, fostering reciprocal partnerships and elevating social consciousness through responsible volunteer exchange programs.

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