I’ve been lucky to have had the chance to volunteer abroad twice through IVHQ. In the summer of 2014, I participated in their sea turtle conservation program in Costa Rica, and over spring break 2015 I traveled with an engineering student group to Guatemala to volunteer in healthcare outreach campaigns. These experiences have been some of the most impactful of my life, and here’s why:
Being involved with something meaningful
One of my favorite parts of alternative breaks is the opportunity it provides to engage in a meaningful project that impacts relevant social issues. In Guatemala, we had the chance to participate in medical campaigns that were organized by the IVHQ local staff and tailored to best utilize our volunteering skills, namely providing health education and supply distribution.
Along the way, we learned about the current health infrastructure within Guatemala and the challenges they face in providing care; while the obstacles are great, it was exciting to see how much IVHQ’s local team and its community partners were shaping healthcare in the surrounding region. One of the staff members had started a hospital for the disabled, and the entire staff was constantly searching for new ways to expand their impact. This is where volunteers could step in; the engineering student group I traveled with is still working with the local community to try to develop a simple, low-cost, and effective diagnostic device for the respiratory conditions they commonly see in their clinics. We are lucky to have the chance to apply the skills we’ve learned to a real-world problem alongside a community partner who understands the challenge and relevant clinical issues.
In Costa Rica, I worked alongside local community members running a sea turtle conservation and protection program. Each night, we would conduct beach patrols to search for nesting turtles. Once we found a turtle, we helped it through the labor process and collected its eggs for relocation to a protected nursery. I learned that even in a country that has been a global leader in conservation, poaching is still a real problem. There were several nights where we just missed the poachers taking a turtle, which was devastating. Experiences like these are hard to put into words, but it inspires you to work harder and promote awareness of conservation efforts and their importance.
Meeting new people
The people you meet while abroad can have just as a big of impact on you as the experience itself. My time in Costa Rica is a perfect example of that. My homestay family was so welcoming and truly made me feel like a part of the family for my two weeks there. From playing bolinchas with the kids and teaching our new friends how to play UNO to visiting relatives for family get-togethers, I loved my family and still keep in touch with them.
I shared my homestay with two other volunteers, one from Australia and the other from New Zealand. We spent almost all of our time together, and I now consider both of them to be like my siblings. You know that when volunteering abroad, you will meet people from all over with backgrounds very different than your own, but you are united by common values in giving back and helping others. One of my favorite memories from this trip was sitting at the casona (the local volunteer hangout) listening to Americans, Brits, Dutch, Aussies, and Kiwis talking about why they came to Costa Rica and what their aspirations are in life.
Experiencing a new culture
By working and living abroad, you have the chance to experience a new culture and reflect on your own personal values and beliefs. One of the things I’ve most appreciated from Latin American culture is its emphasis on family and relationships; compared to the fast-paced, always on-the-go lifestyle of the U.S., it was refreshing being in a community and culture where people lived for the moment and valued taking the time to really hear how your day was going. Experiencing new perspectives on lifestyle has helped me re-evaluate my own priorities. Living abroad also tests your comfort zone; from trying new cuisine to practicing another language, traveling abroad gives you the chance to push your boundaries.
I have been so lucky to have had the chance to volunteer abroad these past few years. Not only have I been able to explore some amazing places, but I’ve met incredible people who continue to inspire me. If you ever have the opportunity, I cannot recommend highly enough engaging yourself in a volunteer abroad experience.
-Erik Thomas, University of Michigan