After weeks, or possibly even months, of planning and anticipation, it may come as a surprise when your time as a volunteer abroad starts drawing to an end. As you start preparing to return to the life you'd left behind, take a few moments to reflect on the goals and motivations that inspired you to volunteer in the first place: do you feel like you accomplished what you'd hoped? Was your time abroad what you'd expected? What did you love? What did you hate? What might you do differently if or when you volunteer abroad again? We'll get into applying some of the skills you've acquired and honed to your career aspirations on the next page, but, in the meantime, spend some time exploring and evaluating your own personal experience as an international volunteer.
Now think about your return home: do you anticipate a bit of reverse culture shock? Are you excited to share all that you learned and experienced? Inspired to stay involved? Whether you were out of country for days, months, or even years, here are some steps to ease your transition:
Chances are you've been through a life-changing experience. You may view the world around you with a new and sometimes surprising lens; for example, where acquiring clean water may have been a challenge abroad, stepping into a grocery aisle stocked with water bottles can be a bit jarring.
The important thing here is to be ready for these moments of culture shock. Try to ride the wave and employ many of the same open mind strategies you used when arriving in your host community. For example, if you hear someone saying something false or stereotypical about the part of the world you've just come from, try to see it not as a challenge but instead an opportunity to start a conversation. Similarly, be sure to allow yourself time and space to reflect on your experiences—both the good and the bad—processing what you lived abroad as well as any new feelings or perceptions that might arise upon your return home.
For more tips on dealing with re-entry and culture shock, check out these links:
You can also be proactive by sharing your stories with family and friends. Have an old-fashioned slide show party and share your pics. The more you can inform those you care about of your experiences, the more likely they are to understand how you might have changed. However, bear in mind that while you may have undergone a substantial metamorphosis, they likely have not and may not fully appreciate, or might even eventually tire of hearing about, yours. Similarly, your experience was almost certainly unique to you and so while you should feel free to share your perceptions, you should remain aware that others may have very different yet equally valid opinions.
Some people who will almost definitely understand what you've experienced are fellow international volunteers. Be sure to find out how to stay or get in touch, whether it's through an alumni program offered by your volunteer-sending organization, joining an alumni group set up on Facebook or MySpace, or attending (or even organizing yourself!) a get-together of local international volunteers. At a minimum, check out the closest branch of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to find similarly minded folks.
Finally, don't forget some of the nuts and bolts of returning home (click here to revisit the pre-trip steps we recommended). Inform the institutions behind your credit cards, student loans, and other financial obligations that you've returned and schedule a medical appointment to make sure you didn't bring home any unwanted guests (e.g. viruses, rashes, or anything more serious). For additional tips on taking care of your health upon return, read this page by Comhlamh Volunteering Options.
In addition to family and friends, another great strategy for sharing your stories is to seek opportunities to write and speak in your community. Write letters to the editor of your local paper or see if they would be interested in writing a feature story on your time abroad. Get in touch with community groups, service clubs, and local schools to see if they'd be interested in having you as a guest speaker. Not only will this provide you with a forum to help share what you learned abroad but it will also help you hone your public speaking skills.
Also, be sure to share your experiences with others who are thinking of volunteering abroad. Just as you likely communicated with former volunteers before deciding where to volunteer, you can now serve as a source of information for the next folks to go. If you went with a volunteer-sending organization, let them know that you're happy to serve as a resource and, whether you went abroad on your own or with a program, post your thoughts on what you liked and didn't like about your volunteer abroad experience on such online forums as Facebook, MySpace, and here on Idealist.org.
Lastly, please don't forget to share your stories with us! And we don't mean just your time abroad but also how this resource center may have helped inform your experience, what it's missing, additional resources we should let folks know about, and more.
Having volunteered in a community abroad, there's a pretty good chance that you know quite a bit about the area, the organization you volunteered with, and the issue or cause they were addressing. With all that knowledge earned through on-the-ground action, it makes sense to stay involved from afar. So whether it's continuing to stay informed by following the news from your host region, volunteering with local organizations addressing the same types of issues (or even with local immigrants and expatriates from that part of the world), or engaging in advocacy and online volunteer projects from home, you can remain actively involved with your host community. Indeed, as Andy Jellin—a former international volunteer himself—stated, your continued involvement after returning home can sometimes be one of the most powerful things you can do as a volunteer, including utilizing potentially easier-to-access-at-home resources like financial support and research tools to assist the organization abroad.
Similarly, try to stay in touch with the people you met during your time there. Distribute your mailing address before you leave (leaving postage stamps and pre-addressed envelopes are a nice touch, too) and send updates or postcards from your home city. It's pretty normal to miss the community you've just left; after all, you likely made new friends and became an albeit temporary member of the community. Staying in touch will help maintain the strength of your bonds until the next time your paths cross.
Here are a few additional resources on staying involved and in touch:
Finally, one of the more popular sentiments made by returning volunteers is the desire to go back and volunteer again. Now that you've got volunteer abroad experience under your belt, the next time around will likely be an even easier process. Ready to start planning? We want to help!
Click here to read about applying your experiences abroad to your career aspirations…