Updated: Aug 24
Submitted by Terra
My first intensive volunteer abroad experience was far from my comfortable home in Toronto. In fact, it was about 14,000 km away in Colombo, Sri Lanka. And I didn’t know I was going there until about a month beforehand! I had applied for a volunteer abroad program with a popular nonprofit that had open placements in Vietnam. I had researched all about Vietnam. I was following vloggers on their daily journeys and I felt fully prepared and excited.
But this is where my first lesson in international development came in. If you’re taking a volunteer placement in the NGO sector, you need to be open to respond to the organization’s most current needs. In my case, the programming had changed, and my help was greatly needed in Colombo! (Of course, this doesn’t apply if you’re paying for a specific experience in a country of your choosing with an intermediary placement agency.) I knew nothing about Sri Lanka! I had already told all my friends and landlord that I would be moving away–no turning back. I knew the next 6 months would be a bit more difficult than I expected, but that it was all part of the journey. Lesson #1: the underlying principle is that you’re offering your help where it’s needed and wanted.
So, I started researching Sri Lanka vigorously. It isn’t a country we had discussed much in school and I hadn’t heard much from my classmates in the sector at the time. There were definitely some norms to grow accustomed to. Women generally dressed more conservatively–my summer shorts and tank tops stayed hidden most days. Tourists were sparse and mostly concentrated in the coastal towns, so I drew in quite a bit of attention as a Canadian–and a female, busily shuffling around on my own everyday.
My role was as a communications adviser, assisting the manager of social marketing with the final stages of a 5-year TVET program aimed at empowering marginalized youth to participate in training and employment opportunities. I learned a few important lessons in this role that would change the way I prepare for a volunteer placement in the future.
When I took on this volunteer placement, I had a few solid years of work experience under my belt, but I really needed some guidance from someone more experienced and with more knowledge of the local context. I was really looking forward to doing regular meetings with my team and getting some instruction and feedback. It turned out that I was on a team of just two–me and my manager and she was usually too busy to meet with me.
Although I had a list of responsibilities from the start, many were items my manager was already working on. I was left to fend for myself about 80% of the time. Eventually, I requested weekly check-ins so that I could collect ideas on how to help with these tasks. Without these meetings, I would feel really in the dark about how I was doing. You don’t want to wait until your placement is up to receive criticism. It’s best to tackle it head-on and show your desire to succeed. If you’re looking for mentorship, it may be wise to connect with other high-level staff from the start in case you can’t rely on your manager for this. This isn’t always possible, especially when volunteering for a short time. As a last resort, try working with another volunteer to share feedback and keep one another accountable.
Different communication styles
Being that I was responsible for collecting enormous amounts of data for final donor reports, I often needed information from our regional offices. For the first few months of my placement, I noticed that field staff (in other cities and towns), and even local staff in my own office, often did not respond to my emails. I started to wonder if I had done something offensive by mistake…maybe they didn’t like me! But they were all very friendly in person, at events and tea breaks. When I finally half-joked to a colleague about it, she told me this was common–they just don’t favour email. If I wanted answers, I would need to get people on the phone or meet them in person, and she was right. It was simply a cultural preference I had never considered. From then on, I always followed up on my emails with calls and made an effort to speak with people in-person when the opportunity arose.
Because of the importance of face time, I found that those who seemed to be most productive were also social with one another outside of office hours. This connection wasn’t intuitive to me at first. While nearly everything is different when working abroad, communication is one of those foundational elements that pulls it all together. I learned that it’s crucial to take some time at the start to get to know your colleagues and the work culture to inform the way you communicate your needs.
I learned a lot about international development–and myself– during my 6 month volunteer abroad placement. I left Sri Lanka much better prepared to work in the sector and inspired to do more.