Should you volunteer overseas? Three key things to consider before you board an airplane

Since my first year abroad in 2010, friends, acquaintances, and even the occasional stranger have approached me for advice on their own travel plans. Now, five years later, I’m living outside the States (the States! That wasn’t part of my vocabulary 6 years ago) once again, and I’ve been able to draw some lessons from the experience.

In this post I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned about overseas volunteering.

Volunteering Overseas is Probably a Good Idea

Taking a year to volunteer in another country is a great idea most of the time. When you start to think about a trip like this, though, there are a couple questions you need to ask.

Ask yourself why you want to go

First, ask yourself: what is most important to you about this experience? Is there a specific culture, climate, or language you’ve just always wanted to live in? Or are you looking more for career experience with an organization that will develop you professionally and complement your résumé? Or do you simply want to pour yourself out in the most need-filled place you can find? Or maybe there’s something else altogether?

That very basic question will help you narrow down your search immensely. Depending on how you answer, you will know if you should be looking for a specific type of volunteering opportunity, a specific organization, or a specific region. And once you know that, you can afford to pay less attention to the other details–saving your precious mental energy and research time for what really matters.

Once you’ve answered that question, it’s time to get realistic. Basically, it’s time to think about the language.

Think about your language investment

Regardless of where you’re going, you better ask yourself: is the language of this area a language that I will use later? If it isn’t, then I would suggest finding an opportunity in a country with a language that you will use later.

Why should language play such an important role in your decision? Because you’re only going for a year.

See, a year sounds like a lot of time before you’ve left. But once you arrive and the newness wears off, the daunting task of learning to communicate in a strange new language can quickly start to feel like a really big investment for just a year. You start to realize that, even if you do master some of the language, you will leave before you really get a chance to use it. By the time you learn enough to be comfortable, it will be time to go home. And then you can be really tempted not to invest in it.

If it was more than a year–if it was a three, or five, or ten year plan–you might be able to stay motivated. But since it’s only a year, you might feel justified not learning the language. It’s just a year, after all.

But that’s the problem. It’s not just a year. It’s a whole year.

During my previous trip, and in my current role, I’ve often asked myself why I don’t just stay in America, or go to some other English-speaking country. I love using my English, and I get discouraged sometimes having to communicate like a four-year-old. I think I could be more effective in a place where I can communicate at full capacity.

And I always conclude that I should either spend the majority of my life in my home country, or devote a serious number of years–on the level of 15 or 20–to a specific people and a specific language that I can get good at.

But besides personal fulfillment, the truth is, a year is enough time to learn a language fairly well. It is at least enough to get a handle on the basic aspects of it. To return to the original question of whether or not you will use the language later, this is probably the strongest justification for planning for this. By the end of your time, you will have invested an entire year into this language. You will probably be kind of good at it. It will be something that you can put on your résumé. It would be a waste never to use it again.

Once you feel like the investment in a foreign language is worth it, it’s time to check yourself.

Do some systematic listening

The only way you can stay confident about your move, no matter how rough the situation gets, is if you know you’re going for more than a whim.

A lot my life decisions are made on a whim. I might seem slow to make big decisions to some people, but for many things, I don’t take the time to systematically determine whether this is something I’ll be okay with in the long-term, or if it’s just a personal fad. I go by intuition.

But this decision is probably not a decision that should be made that way. Intuition changes, and it’s really easy to doubt how authentic the original decision was.

My 2010 trip to Thailand was somewhat thought through, but the initial decision was still made whimsically. It all worked out because I had a great position, with wonderful people, in a fun country with really good food. But I have friends who went out that same year to different places who did not have such a good time. And their experiences might have been better if they had been more systematic about their decision-making. My current excursion has had it’s share of doubtful moments, but I’m always able to look back and find encouragement from the method I used to arrive at my decision.

There is a way to make decisions that you’ll be okay with for the long haul.

The three key things I did that have given me confidence through it all include: 1) personal interface with God, 2) conversations with lots of friends and mentors, and 3) waiting for a clear conscience.

You can read more about my experience with each of these in my first post, but I’ll summarize here.

1. Personal interface with God involves being alone with the Bible and alone in prayer. Developing a simple biblical motive for your trip gives you something stable to look back on, and praying for an honest heart and a clear mind is something you can be sure God wants to give you.

2. People are wise. Talk to them from the beginning. Get their honest feedback and garner their moral support if you decide to go. It’s always easier to move forward if you know you have people back at home rooting for you. And pray with them about it.

3. Wait until you are clear. When I finally made my decision, I was bursting with joy and totally at peace. I was confident that it was the right thing. If you have doubts, don’t rush to a decision. Pray about it more and come up with some criteria for finding an answer that you will be at peace with. Then make your decision once you have the answer. Don’t obligate yourself prematurely.

Go for It

Once you know what you’re really interested in traveling for, that you’re prepared to invest big-time in the language, and have gone through a systematic process of listening to God, to people, and to yourself that points you in the direction of travel, then go for it. Volunteering overseas is probably a good idea.