3 Tips for Choosing Your Perfect Volunteer Program Abroad

After returning from an amazing semester abroad, I was like many other college students: changed. I’d spent five months commuting to school and living with a host family in Buenos Aires, and upon returning to rural Ohio for my senior year of college, I was desperate to live in another country again.

This unbridled desire to be out of the United States spurred a stream of questionable — and, honestly, half-baked — “Get India Abroad 2.0” relocation plans. A few weeks into my search, I started looking into volunteer programs throughout Latin America and had literally no idea as to what I wanted to do there.

I eventually settled on a volunteer gig in Ecuador, but my fallible logic caught up with me 72 hours after landing in Quito when I realized I’d chosen the wrong program. I was on a plane back to the United States a mere three days after my big post-grad adventure started, and this whole fiasco could have been avoided if I had have done a few things differently.

My view on my way to work in rural Ecuador | Near Otavalo, Ecuador

Don’t: Assume you’re qualified for any type of job abroad.

For some reason, I thought I’d make a great ESL teacher in Latin America. Sure, I’d done a lot of tutoring in the past, which I considered “teaching experience,” and my Spanish/English fluency made me a prime teaching candidate, right?


Before I knew it, I was tasked with creating an original curriculum for both my classes in Ecuador, and with internet limitations in the northern part of the country, I couldn’t easily look up course templates online. My program directors offered basic assistance, but I definitely wasn’t prepared for my lack of preparedness. This started my Ecuadorian experience off on the wrong foot, and it just went downhill from there.

Instead: Assess your strengths and weaknesses.

Just because you took an architecture class fall semester your sophomore year doesn’t mean you’re qualified to build houses abroad, and just because you speak a language doesn’t mean you’re 100% prepared to teach it.

Crops and fields by the school where I taught | Near Otavalo, Ecuador

Don’t: Assume an entire region is homogeneous.

For me, this conflation came in regard to rural and urban spaces. I’d lived in Buenos Aires for a semester, and I loved my travels to Medellin and Cartagena. I mistakenly assumed rural Ecuador would be like the cosmopolitan spaces I’d come to associate with Latin America, and I have no justification for this gross oversight and can say nothing except that I was wrong.

In my negligible defense, though, I did recognize that “rural” and “urban” are different spaces. I’m from West Virginia, a largely rural state in North America, and I also (incorrectly) assumed my experience in Appalachia would be comparable to my experience in Ecuador. Again, I was wrong. The two regions are incredibly different.

Instead: Adjust expectations and learn to be more adaptable.

This is standard “travel abroad” advice, but, if you’re like me, you hear it, but you don’t really listen.

Please listen to this.

One of the hardest lessons I learned during my time abroad was that it is not my host country’s job to adapt itself to meet my expectations. On the contrary, I should be the one who adjusts. I should have been more prepared when I went to Ecuador, sure, but I also should have been quicker to adjust my expectations to match my environment.

Right in the thick of the Andes Mountains | Near Otavalo, Ecuador

Don’t: Forget your decision affects others, too.

I’m a huge fan of random, spontaneous decision-making, but I forgot how my decision to travel abroad would impact others. When one travels abroad and volunteers or works or interns in another community, your social network expands to encompass those individuals, too, so it’s best to proceed with caution and forethought.

One of the hardest parts about leaving Ecuador was telling the children in my neighborhood and my host family that I would be going back to the United States early. They were dejected and confused, and rightly so. My host mom relentlessly believed that she’d offended me in some way, and no amount of reassurance could convince her otherwise.

Instead: Do as much preliminary research as you can.

This will help eliminate some of the surprises that might pop up along the way, and, in turn, will help to eliminate any awkwardness and discomfort that might come about if you realize you’re in way over your head.

There are some unforeseen issues that can pop up when traveling abroad, and sometimes, these hiccups are unavoidable. My difficulties, for the most part, were totally avoidable. By following these three guidelines, though, I truly think my next international volunteering experience will be more rewarding for all parties involved.

Have some tips of your own? I’d love to hear them! 


Featured Image: One of two volcanoes that were said to protect the valley | Near Otavalo, Ecuador 

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