I’m a 21-year-old and when I hear about the gap year travels of my peers, their stories usually include a beach or a jungle. Not to say that’s a bad thing, but I knew that this time when I headed abroad, I wanted to be involved in NGO work while I was away. I let that drive my decision-making process in deciding where I would volunteer abroad.
I ended up volunteering in Romania, where I worked with a local organisation 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.
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. There are a few things you can do to make the most of your time, so here are my top 10 tips for volunteering abroad…
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 quite hectic. I made a mistake in skim reading an email and failed to organise a lift from Bucharest to Miercurea Ciuc. I had little idea of where to go, no local money and a barely working mobile phone.
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. It was everything you could want out of a five and a half hour journey. Though everything turned out fine, things would have been much smoother if I’d have read my Program Guide in advance.
2. Be proactive
During orientation, the local team staff advises 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 other ways to help the local community. 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-long stay, I made some amazing friendships. But it did take some time for me to feel fully secure and part of the team.
Taking a real interest in the local people and wanting to help as much as possible was key. I learned so much about the children and staff at the homestay, despite the fact we didn’t speak each other’s 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. It won’t happen in a day.
While that might take a bit of effort, making friends with your fellow volunteers is much easier. Straight away, you’ve got something in common and you’ll be surprised by how far that will take you. It hardly takes any time at all to make friends, and you’ll grow really close.
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’s also big and you need to plan your activities in advance to give yourself enough time. Traveling to Brasov (the capital of Transylvania) takes a good portion of the day - a good idea would be to use the entire weekend and stay there overnight if you want to see both the city and the surrounding attractions.
Harghita county also has enough to offer to fill a month’s worth of free time. So, 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 volunteering time on your placement. You’ll achieve much more and it 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.
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-oriented. 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. If you do have an issue, it’s often something that can be easily solved.
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. Clearly, you’re not going to be fluent in another language you’ve never studied before, and I found Hungarian and Romanian difficult languages to understand, but learning some key phrases is really useful. The local staff offer affordable language lessons as well as a few key phrases at orientation.
8. Talk to locals and find the best sights
When it comes to finding things to do in your spare time, 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. There are a lot of great things to see and do, so put in the effort to figure out what they are.
9. Bring your hiking boots
OK, so hiking boots are specific to Romania. The point is, wherever you go, make sure you get out and see the natural landscapes. Transylvania is full of great hikes. Some of them were even on my walk home.
Make sure you get out and see some of the sights. You’ve traveled across the world to get there, you may as well enjoy the place you’re in!
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 and I would hate to lose touch with them. Show your appreciation and develop long term, meaningful friendships - you’ll want to come back and visit them!
So that’s it - my top 10 tips for volunteering abroad. I can’t recommend doing a volunteer trip abroad enough - however you choose to do it (and even if you don’t follow ALL these tips), you’re sure to have an amazing time!
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.