Regardless of where your volunteering abroad journey takes you, if you’re working with an organization that works with, and truly benefits, the local community (i.e. not giving jobs once belonging to local workers to international volunteers), and the work and location suit you, then you’ll no doubt have a fantastic time and make a real difference. So that’s my first piece of practical advice.
I’m a 21-year-old and when I hear about the gap year travels of 20-somethings, their stories usually include a beach or a jungle. Not to say that’s a bad thing (I’ve done that too). But I knew that this time when I headed abroad, I wanted to be involved in NGO work and I let that drive my decision-making process in deciding where I would volunteer abroad.
I ended up volunteering in Romania and I worked with a local organization that focused predominantly on teaching and summer school placements; offering support and care to underprivileged children in Hargita county, Transylvania. The work has a visible impact on the local community. Not only that, but it also impacts each individual volunteer as well. Engaging in work which can often involve planning, failing and trying again, teaches people how to work in a team and to be patient. Essentially, it helps us volunteers to grow up.
I’d never associated NGO volunteer opportunities with Eastern Europe. It’s a place that can often be ignored as a volunteer destination and still has a long way to go with NGO development. But that’s why volunteers need to be proactive and engaged. So here are my top 10 volunteering abroad tips for making the most of your time as an international volunteer…
1. Make sure you know how to get there
It may sound simple, but reading the information provided to you is vitally important. My first few hours in Romania were admittedly quite hectic. I made a mistake in skim reading an email and failed to organize a lift from Bucharest to Miercurea Ciuc. I took a deep breath and despite having little idea of where to go, no money and a barely working mobile phone, I thought it best not to panic. I managed to get through to the local team who told me of a train making its way to Miercurea Ciuc. The train met all my expectations - nostalgic carriages, a ticket inspector, and fantastic scenery. Everything you could want out of a five and a half hour journey. Though everything turned out pretty well, I’d still suggest reading the emails properly.
2. Be proactive
During orientation, the local team staff advise you to be proactive - but this doesn’t necessarily sink in straight away. But asking about more work, telling the local team about ideas you have and keeping yourself informed about the ins and outs of the project is the best way to make the most of your volunteering experience. Volunteering isn’t about having everything set up for you. Engage with the people around you and ask about more ways to help the local community or the organization. Both the local team and IVHQ want all volunteers to gain everything they can from their time abroad but to do so, you have to give the experience all you’ve got.
3. Get to know the people around you
During my month’s stay, friendships blossomed. But at the start I was a new, foreign person. Finding funny and unique ways of communicating really helped to get things going. By the second week, I felt secure and part of a team.
Having a real interest to learn about each person and wanting to help as much as possible was key. I learned so much about the children and staff at the home, despite no one being able to speak more than 10 words in the others language.
Allowing time for relationships to grow and showing appreciation to those around you is very important. Often when people respond in a way you don’t expect, it’s simply because they don’t know you. Give yourself and those around you time to adapt. Nothing is done in a day.
4. Use your time wisely - it’ll be over before you know it
Making the most of your free time is essential. Transylvania is a wonderful place with many things to do - but it is also big and you must plan your activities in advance to give yourself enough time. Traveling to Brasov (capital of Transylvania) takes a good portion of the day - a good idea would be to use the entire weekend and stay at a hostel if you wish to see both the city and the surrounding attractions. Brasov isn’t the only thing to see, Harghita county itself has enough to offer to fill a month’s worth of free time. So, look talk to the local team and your fellow volunteers and start making plans as soon as you get there. Also, don’t forget to make the most of your time at your placement. Making this effort won’t go unnoticed.
5. Try something new
Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and dive straight in! I had worked with and cared for children in previous years and wanted to try something new. The Agriculture project involved working alongside young adults and staff from an organization that provides shelter and support to disadvantaged youth. I learned how to run a farm in a sustainable way while helping a scheme that is beneficial to the children at the home.
Taking on something new and challenging is a brilliant way to develop skills. My ambitions to pursue a career in humanitarian aid and NGO work were greatly aided by learning about the development of sustainable environments. But it doesn’t have to be career orientated. Taking yourself out of your comfort zone is an essential part of growing up - especially if you wish to travel.
6. If there’s a problem, don’t be afraid to talk about it
After my first week, I still wasn’t sure if I was doing as much as I could. So I talked to the local team and we discussed ways I could enhance my volunteering experience. It was as simple as that. Avoiding a problem, even if it feels insignificant or perhaps unrelated to your placement, is important.
7. Learn the local language
As I’ve mentioned, there is a language barrier. Wherever in the world you decide to travel, you are likely to experience some sort of language barrier. Personally, I found Hungarian and Romanian difficult languages, but learning some key phrases is really useful. The local staff offer affordable language lessons as well as a few pages with key phrases at orientation.
8. Talk to locals and find the best sights
My advice if you are in Romania: don’t go to Bran Castle.
It pays to do your research, talk to people and hear a range of different experiences. Don’t just go somewhere simply because it’s in a guidebook, or brochure, and don’t be afraid to get off the beaten track and explore the places local people recommend to you.
9. Bring your hiking boots
The hiking boots are specific to Romania, but wherever you go, make sure you get out and see the natural landscapes. Transylvania is full of great hikes. Some could be on your walk home - as there was for me. The scenery is breathtaking and well worth a bit of a climb. Bring your walking boots and get out and see some of the sights many cross the world to see.
10. Stay in touch
Make sure you get everyone’s name and address or social media details so you can stay in touch. I made great friends with both volunteers and people from the local community. I would hate if they were no longer a part of my life. Show your appreciation and develop long term, meaningful friendships - you’ll want to come back and visit them!
To continue researching your volunteering abroad, be sure to browse all of IVHQ’s volunteer abroad programs, or start your volunteer journey by applying below.