Did you know that over one billion people across different countries, regions, and cultures volunteer worldwide? While it’s true that this work can often be quite tricky to manage – given that the hours can be long, the work draining, and financially unrewarding – volunteerism comes with its own set of unique benefits that more than make up for its drawbacks, while leaving your life feeling fulfilled as well. Some of these benefits can include a sense of building community, networking, learning new skills, gaining experience, working in teams, and accessing new opportunities. As a long-term volunteer, I have experienced all these benefits – however, to me the true highlight of volunteering is the opportunity of exposure to different cultures.
Exposure to different cultures locally
No matter where in the world you live, chances are that your country will have either more than one religion, ethnicity, or culture. However, we are so used to this fact that we often forget that these micro-societies can be very different from the environment we ourselves grow up in.
Volunteering at a local level is a good way to bridge this gap and truly understand the diversity of our communities. As volunteers often work at a grassroots level, and concern themselves with issues affecting different cultures and groups, they have a unique opportunity to create local connections. Many volunteer organizations are, in fact, specifically geared to address issues of a particular sector of society – especially if they are a minority. By working with these organizations in your different localities, you can expose yourself to different cultures on the ground-level – which provides you comprehensive insight into their daily lives and helps you experience your home through a different view. For example, certain organizations focus on rehabilitating survivors of domestic violence, and others may focus on providing support to transgender individuals. Working in these specialized environments can give you insights you cannot learn anywhere else.
Experiencing cultures globally
However different cultures within a country can be, it’s nothing compared to the culture shock you receive when you travel to different places across the globe. Anything and everything can be different, and until you travel, you will often not understand what you take for granted and how drastically different life experiences can be elsewhere. For example, I realized how I take good wiring for granted once I went to countries like Thailand and Nepal.
When it comes to experiencing different countries, once again a volunteer’s exposure becomes more in-depth and grounded than that of other visitors, due to working directly with said communities as opposed to just experiencing the tourist’s view of a country. This opportunity provides you with a thorough understanding on how different societies function – and maybe practices we can learn from other ways of life.
Why cultures are important to you as a volunteer
Some of you may have the question of whether it’s worth the hassle to volunteer in another region or especially another country. I’m here to tell you: Of course it is! The experience comes with its own set of benefits.
The biggest benefit is to the local community – who benefit from your enthusiasm and skills. The beauty of being a stranger is that you may have skills not commonly accessed in that society – for example, financial literacy in a rural area. Thus, any help you can give becomes invaluable.
Another noted benefit is increased cross-cultural awareness, which can help break down misunderstandings and allow people from other parts of the world to communicate effectively. This is also a great way to break some stereotypes and learn more about different people.
Photo: Ray Sangga Kusuma on Unsplash
If the country or region you are going to is struggling (which might be why you’re volunteering there in the first place), you can also have a positive impact on the local economy by spending money in local markets and businesses. We should never underestimate how little it takes to help a struggling vendor pay their bills. This can also help expose you to the daily lives of locals and help you better understand their lived experiences.
You can also use this opportunity as a chance to dip your toes into a particular field, particularly if you’re looking to make a career out of it. Volunteering is a great way to test things out and see what you’re comfortable with, and it can truly help you figure out what your passions are.
In this line, a report called “Impact Of Cross-Cultural Volunteering On Hosting Organisations – Three Cases From Finland” also identified three key areas of impact of volunteers on hosting organizations. As per the report, international volunteering:
- Facilitates processes of intercultural learning and promotes diversity awareness
- Contributes to building psychosocial capacity, particularly among the socially disadvantaged
- Strengthens organizational capacity
Whichever way you look at it, every party benefits when you’re an international volunteer!
Where to volunteer to get cross-cultural experiences
Even if thinking about our own program here at IVolunteer International, our members are from all parts of the world and have been exposed to different people and cultures through volunteering. This teaches us a lot about ourselves and other people from parts of the world we may not know much about or understand. To help you secure these experience, we share several ways you can volunteer internationally.
AIESEC is, of course, the first organization that would come to mind. Built on an infrastructure of volunteering in other countries and cross-cultural exchange, AIESEC has become famous worldwide . As per their site, “AIESEC is a global platform for young people to explore and develop their leadership potential. We are a non-political, independent, not-for-profit organization run by students and recent graduates of institutions of higher education. Its members are interested in world issues, leadership, and management.” What’s noteworthy about AIESEC is that it specializes in cross-culture exchanges and if you’re part of the program, you might just get many chances to change the world.
Another organization to volunteer at would be Students For Liberty. SFL is “the largest pro-liberty student organization in the world in terms of leaders, countries represented, and events. Rising above partisan politics, we engage in open and civil discourse over how to best promote freedom in all aspects of our lives. We respect that everyone comes to their justification for liberty in their own way and we are supportive of them in that journey. Liberty creates a better world and our messages surrounding the ideas are welcoming, positive, and inspiring.” They host a variety of regional and international events facilitating cross-cultural awareness and communication.
Likewise, there are many organizations around the world to help you, just head over to Google and see where you want to change first!