Remember that international volunteer service is taking two or more completely different cultural systems and having them work together. There are cultural differences, particularly with regard to time. Volunteers from the United States want and expect everything right now, but the rest of the world doesn't function the same way. You will get information, paperwork, and updates when you need them, not necessarily when you want them. The following are important components of your volunteer abroad process that you need to understand and follow through with in order to successfully continue and complete your application.
Your Personal Volunteer Abroad Webpage
you log in to your personal volunteer abroad web page, you will be able
to view most of the materials that you will need to have in before
being able to depart for your program. Each form will have instructions
about how to correctly complete the form and where to submit it. When
our office receives the forms that you send
in, they will be recorded and "checked off" on your web page. You are
also responsible for reading your learning content and e-signing
documents. Learning content is
important information on specific relevant topics pertaining to volunteer
abroad that all participants should be aware of as they prepare to
Passport and Tourist Visa
Speaking to the Right People
you are the central actor in your own volunteer abroad process, there are
other people that support you as well. Each volunteer who participates on a Volunteer Positive program will have an experienced Adviser who will provide information, guidance, and to work
with participants on individual issues related to their volunteer abroad
preparation. Additionally, all participants will be required to attend a
pre-departure orientation training given by staff at Volunteer Positive either in per.son or through a virtual conference platform.
Last but not least, your own community of parent(s), mentors, friends, and professors can be a very important support to you physically, mentally, emotionally (and sometimes financially!). Please communicate with them about your pre-departure plans as you feel it is appropriate.
Arriving In Country
Knowing what you might expect when you first arrive in your host country can ease your transition to volunteering abroad and help you make the most of the experience from the start. While what follows provides information and advice on how to avoid potential problems that could occur overseas, it is not meant to suggest that the experience before you - living and learning on foreign soil, in a culture not your own - is something you should fear. Indeed, it should be one of the most enriching, fulfilling, interesting, and educational experiences of your entire life. This is what it has been, in any case, for nearly all volunteers who have undertaken it.
Learning About Your Host Country
Another important aspect to learn about is the social, religious, and political systems you will be part of when you are overseas, especially if you will be volunteering. Knowing the answers to these questions early on will allow you to set your own intellectual and programatic goals.
Preparing To Be 'The American' Abroad
As you deepen your learning about your new culture, you should also be aware that in a foreign environment you will occasionally be put in the position of being a spokesperson about the United States and American culture. News accounts of happenings in the US or foreign policy that moves around the world will cause some of your foreign friends and contacts to ask you searching questions. Are you sure you know enough about your own country? Returned study abroad students often remark on how they sometimes had a difficult time explaining the history, politics, and culture of the United States when pressed by their friends, much less in an academic classroom. They say they wish they had done some boning up on American history and looked at their own cultural values more critically before they went abroad. What are the American values? Will you be able to describe the characteristics of the American people to someone overseas - our social structures, our political system? Be prepared with some answers!
In some countries more than others, there is an unflattering stereotype of American tourists and visitors; one who throws money around, drinks too much, is loud and rude, expects all foreigners to speak English, thinks the United States is better than any other country, and is always in a hurry. There are other countries in which all Americans are seen as happy, cheerful, carefree, and above all rich. Locals in your host country may assume parts or all of this to be true about you, simply because you are from the United States. Remember that their images of what 'Americans' are like are based on the other Americans they have seen, if not in person, then indirectly through our movies and media. Such is the nature of stereotyping. The challenge is to go beyond misleading images and false impressions, so that you and they can be yourselves, and mutual understanding can deepen over time. If you encounter these attitudes, rather than becoming defensive, ask why that person feels the way that they do and then you may then also have the opportunity to show them and their culture respect through your own attitude, lifestyle, and demeanor.
Immigration and Customs
After Immigration, comes Customs. You will be asked to declare (perhaps in writing) if you are carrying certain items in your luggage. Be sure to declare any restricted items, as luggage may be opened and checked. Always be respectful and polite. Never make jokes about bombs or illegal drugs. This kind of behavior can get you detained by the police.
Foreign travelers are sometimes viewed suspiciously by Immigration and Customs officials. It helps to dress neatly and be well-groomed.
The purpose of on-site orientation is to review what you learned from your pre-departure preparations
and to provide you with current site-specific information and perspectives about your surroundings which may not be possible at a distance and beforehand. It is likely to cover the following areas:
- Introduction to the program - Your volunteer placement will be confirmed. You'll learn about the program rules and requirements, and you will be given information on social and cultural events and opportunities.
- Health information - You'll be told about any special health precautions to take in the local environment.
- Safety information - How to lessen the chance of becoming the victim of a crime or an accident while you are abroad and how to behave so as to maximize your personal safety vis-a-vis crime and violence.
- Personal conduct - How to behave in ways appropriate to your status as a guest in your new environment. You cannot use the excuse of being "foreign" if you disobey the civil and criminal laws of the country.
- Notifying local authorities - Your program representative should help you register with the local authorities, if this is required, and with the US embassy or consulate so that you can be located in case of an emergency.
- Housing - You may be taken to your dorm, hotel, or apartment .
- Language Training - Volunteer Positive offers basic training in the host language as part of orientation. Introduction to the local culture: lectures, tours, meetings, etc. on the local culture.
- Communications - You'll be told about the options for keeping in touch with your family and friends at home.
- Independent travel - Your program representative may be able to provide information on methods of travel, how to arrange it, and any safety factors involved.
- Training - Most of what you need to be aware of will be provided, but the settling-in process must be lived through on an individual basis.
Cultural Adjustment & Exploration
Access the online cultural training resource entitled 'What's Up with Culture?'
This frustration and confusion is sometimes referred to as 'culture shock.' Variations of culture shock can affect even experienced travelers and is considered a natural (and perhaps even essential) part of adjusting to a foreign culture. Symptoms can include depression, sleeping difficulties, homesickness, trouble concentrating, an urge to isolate yourself, and irritation with your host culture.
In sum, EVERYONE goes through a time where they have difficulties adjusting to their host culture. Keep in mind that volunteers returning from abroad often describe working their way through culture shock as a necessary maturing experience, something that provided insight into their own cultural assumptions.
The following are strategies for you to be able to integrate into your host culture:
- Learn as much as possible from local residents about their culture.
- Try to keep your long-range goals in mind. Experiencing a new culture will inevitably involve some frustration and feelings of loneliness as you leave the familiar and incorporate the new, but they don't last forever.
- Meet other volunteers in the same country or region. It can sometimes be helpful to meet with them and share experiences. Avoid letting these become gripe sessions, however. See next point!
- Avoid making hasty judgments and perpetual negativity.
- Keep yourself busy doing things you enjoy. When you have free time, visit museums, go to movies, and tour local sites of interest.
- Keep in touch with your family and friends at home. Letters, phone calls, or e-mail contact will make you feel less isolated.
- You can ease your transition by recognizing the factors that cause culture shock and taking steps to minimize them.
Fitting In and Being Accepted
Your volunteer abroad experience will be heightened if you try as much as possible to become part of the local social environment. In the beginning, it is perhaps wise to behave like a guest, as indeed you are. For a while you may even be accorded a special status, that of a well-meaning (but not-quite-with-it!) outsider. But as time goes on, you will want to be able to behave in ways similar to that of the local students and citizens - and others will begin to expect such behavior of you. This means learning what behavior is and isn't appropriate in this new setting, and acting accordingly. Observe local students in your dormitory, on campus, on the street. It's fine to ask questions about local customs and ways of behaving. In fact, people will appreciate that you are trying to learn about their culture and lifestyle, and are likely to help you adjust.
Learning and Respecting Local Customs
Understanding local customs will help you feel a part of the new culture and avoid potentially embarrassing situations. Especially if you are not fluent in the local language, your body language is often what expresses you. Saying hello or goodbye via a simple hand gesture is, for example, done quite differently from place to place, even within Europe. When to shake hands or kiss is signaled between people in different ways from country to country. How close to sit or stand when talking also varies greatly. These are just a few of the many simple habits for you to learn and then follow in order not to give unintended offense.
Observe how local women your age act and dress and try to do likewise. In spite of your efforts, however, you may find that you are harassed. In some countries, women are routinely whistled at, pinched, and even grabbed. This may be because, in some countries, the cultural stereotype of western women is that they are promiscuous. You can minimize unwanted attention by dressing modestly and in the same style as the local women. Avoid making eye contact with men in the street. What may seem to you like simple friendliness might be interpreted as flirtation to a man from a country where women keep their eyes down. Watch the local women; see how they avoid and turn away unwanted attention, and mimic their behavior. Take a friend with you when you go out at night or to an unfamiliar area. In some countries, young unmarried women never go out alone. Arrange a public meeting place when you get together with people you don't know well.
If you are HIV positive, there can be different cultural norms and expectations regarding the appropriate way to disclose while in your host country. Your Volunteer Positive staff are always available to explore these issues and to offer advice. Remember, we are Volunteer Positive which is not a subtle name, but not everyone on the program will have the virus, some will be affected not infected. This is the same in the host culture.