Volunteer placements abroad in countries like Cambodia are life-changing and transformative experiences. However, these experiences are not necessarily positive. While many volunteers do find their volunteer experiences to be enriching and gratifying, others find their experiences to be disappointing or downright negative.
To learn more about the emotional ups and downs of volunteering abroad, we’re speaking with Luisa Gentile, the founder of Professionals doing good in Cambodia who has over ten years of experience in corporate and international volunteering.
Why do volunteers have expectations of happiness being the key measure of success for their volunteer experience?
It’s usually because of the tendency for people to associate volunteering abroad with their former experience of a holiday, which is usually a happy time that takes you away from your daily problems.
Social media are responsible as well, as they often show snapshots of smiling volunteers in exotic environments surrounded by friendly people. Let us say this upfront—these high expectations created through the filters of social media are misleading and unrealistic. Both ups and downs are a given in any moment of an individual’s life, and thus they are a normal component of a volunteer experience as well, particularly in a developing country.
Is there a predictable happiness/unhappiness cycle that a volunteer experiences during a volunteer project?
Typically, there is an initial phase of euphoria and excitement, the so-called honeymoon, where things are better than what the volunteer imagined or expected. These things could be the food they eat, the people they meet, the places they visit, the organisations they volunteer for, or the sum of all of it. They differ from one individual to another, as everyone comes with different dreams and expectations.
When and why does the honeymoon end?
The duration of the honey moon varies from one volunteer to another—it can last for weeks, days or even just hours!
The honeymoon ends when reality strikes and a frustrating, unexpected event takes place that the volunteer finds difficult to deal with. What this event is varies from one person to another. It could be caused by language barriers, the feeling of loneliness, the encounter of different working styles while volunteering at the host organisation, the hot weather, the extreme level of poverty, an accommodation that is subpar… it is basically caused by things that don’t meet the volunteer’s standards or are simply different that what was imagined or expected.
How can volunteers handle moments of culture shock?
First of all, accept that feeling uncomfortable, frustrated, overwhelmed or annoyed is a normal part of life, meaning that these feelings could occur during a volunteer experience, too! There is nothing wrong with not feeling like everything is roses all the time!
Second of all, try turning negative elements or experiences into something meaningful. The following methods could help.
Learn about the culture
Volunteers should realise that volunteering abroad is much more than a holiday, particularly when the project lasts for more than a few days and takes place in a developing country. It is meant to be an enriching cultural journey. Volunteers are not only sightseeing and visiting landmarks while they’re abroad, but they also become deeply immersed in the country in its everyday reality. This is particularly true for volunteers, who may be exposed to local politics, red tapes, poverty, corruption, and disorder. They’re also required to engage with a very diverse set of values and ways of dealing with time, due dates, and problems.
Volunteers should recognise the chance to grow as individuals and learn more about themselves. How do they react when they’re in an uncomfortable situation? How do they deal with stress? How do they handle being away from friends and family? What are their coping mechanisms? It is as much an internal journey as it is an external one.
We encourage long-term volunteers to identify an activity they’re passionate , or dabble in something they’ve never done before, that would be available for them in Cambodia, so that they could dedicate their spare time to it during weekends or after hours. Find your hobby is one of the best ways to learn about Cambodia, make new friends with interests similar to yours and to keep yourself balanced.
When does the negative phase of encountering culture shock end?
Sadly, some volunteers cannot manage to get out of this stage. For some of these volunteers, the one disappointing event that starts it all simply taints the rest of the volunteer experience with negativity. Other volunteers fall into the blame trap: they blame the country, they blame the charity they volunteer for, they blame the weather, they blame the food… all for not being up to their expectations or ways of doing things. For some individuals, the level of anxiety and discontent is so unbearable that they decide to interrupt the project altogether and return home.
To me, as the person responsible for Professionals doing good, these cases are lost opportunities. We can do our best to accompany, guide, advise, support or mentor volunteers, but we also need to accept that everyone needs to eventually be responsible for their own journey. As they say, you can lead a horse to the river, but you cannot make it drink.
So is there a recipe for a successful volunteer experience abroad?
Every volunteer is an individual with a different attitude, story, values, culture, experience, expectations, dreams… and as such there is no magic recipe that fits everyone.
However, as a rule of thumb, a successful experience is when a volunteer has passed through the honeymoon, the culture shock and has managed to emerge in a phase where they’re able to adjust and adapt. This is when they’ve developed the ability to face things as they are—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and have found a way to deal with them. This is particularly true for volunteers who remember the real reason they are there—to help others—and they put that at the heart of what they do.