How To Volunteer Overseas

…the UBELONG Volunteer Abroad blog.


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Volunteer Interview: Dipabali and her fellow Cornellians volunteer in Quito, Ecuador

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Dipabali volunteered with her fellow Cornellians for one week at the Teaching English project in Quito, Ecuador.

UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Dipabali Chowdury
Age: 21
Nationality: USA
University: Cornell University
Languages spoken: English, Bengali, and Spanish
Past travel experience: Intermediate
Volunteer Abroad project: Teaching English in Quito, Ecuador
Duration: 1 week
Start month: January
Claim to fame: Interned with the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG volunteer?
I decided to be a UBELONG volunteer because I was looking for a service program that would provide me with an enriching experience and allow me to culturally immerse myself as a local. The UBELONG program was highly affordable, flexible and most importantly offered an authentic experience with a host family.

What was your impact on your project?
As a volunteer in one of Ecuador’s primary schools, I worked with a local teacher to develop lesson plans, lead classes and implement interactive learning activities for the children. I was able to help supplement the coursework and teach English to students.

Many schools in South America do not have the resources or human capital to teach English in classrooms. I was able to introduce basic English lessons to these children and help provide individualized attention to the students in the classroom.

Tell us about somebody you met who impressed you.
While exploring Ecuador’s artisan street markets, I came across two brothers about eight years old, carrying around a polishing kit to shine shoes. I was immediately struck by their work ethic. It was early on a Saturday morning and while all the other children their age were playing, these two boys were ready to work. Their persistence and determination was admirable. At that moment, I knew that I should not take anything in life for granted.

Too many of us complain too much about the smallest things in life. Just a simple interaction with these boys reminded me that these complaints were minuscule in comparison to the difficulties and challenges children in developing countries are facing on a daily basis.

What was the funniest moment?
The funniest moments were spent with the host family. Since I am not fluent in Spanish, I often found myself struggling to explain myself. Sometimes the meanings got lost in translation and my sentences would make no sense.

The same happened when I was trying to teach the host family English. Our learning exchanges turned into laughing sessions and an amazing opportunity to appreciate cultures.


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Volunteer Interview: Bing Bing, a Project Manager from Hong Kong, volunteers in Laos

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Bing Bing at a local school in Vang Vieng, Laos, where she volunteered at the Teaching English project for two weeks.

UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Bing Bing Qian
Age: 34
Hometown: Hong Kong
Nationality: United Kingdom
University: University of Sussex
Degree: Mathematics
Occupation: Project Manager at HSBC
Languages spoken: English, Mandarin, Cantonese
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Teaching English in Vang Vieng, Laos
Duration: 2 weeks
Start month: December 2013
Claim to fame: Travelled to 21 countries across 4 continents

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG volunteer?
Having browsed through a number of sites, I was drawn to UBELONG because we share the same vision. Also, UBELONG offers a diversity of projects and a comparatively more flexible starting time.

What were your major challenges?
My major challenges were finding a project that suited my schedule, while being a full time employee. Also, a big challenge was the fact that I had no previous formal teaching experience.

What surprised you?
I was pleasantly surprised by the lush greenery and the magnificent mountain range. Food was light and delicious. And don’t forget the friendly locals, although they were a bit timid at first.

Tell me about somebody you met who impressed you?
I met a number of great people during the Laos trip. It is a coincidence that we met in Vang Vieng but it also indicates that we shared the same passion about giving back to society while having a fun time. Two weeks perhaps is not long enough to make an impact in the project, but I can honestly say I gave it my best shot and enjoyed very much teaching the kids in the two schools.

What did you take from the experience?
It was a fulfilling 2-week experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. It reaffirms that life can be so simple, stress-free and happy. Those hand-drawn pictures from the kids are definitely one of most precious gifts I ever received. I shall keep being open-minded, respectful towards other cultures. Great to learn and grow through such experiences.


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Volunteer Interview: Madhuri, a Cornell graduate, volunteers in Ghana

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Madhuri volunteered for three weeks at the Public Health project in Accra, Ghana.

UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Madhuri Martin
Age: 22
Hometown: New York , NY
Nationality: India
University: Cornell
Degree: Psychology
Languages spoken: English, Hindi
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Assisting in Public Health Education in Accra, Ghana
Duration: 3 weeks
Start month: December 2013
Claim to fame: Five years of experience working with an NGO in New Delhi, India

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG volunteer?
At the culmination of my undergraduate education, it was time to step out of the bubble that I had comfortably lived in for so long. People often say that once you graduate from college you enter the ‘real world’. For me, this real world experience truly manifested itself when I decided to travel to Ghana. The idea of going to a new country alone felt risky and yet, that was precisely why I decided to do it. The uncertainty of what was out there excited me.

As a prospective medical student, my initial motivation was to learn more about the healthcare needs of another country. More importantly though, I wanted to experience an entirely new culture. I wanted to meet people who were living lives that contrasted my own. I wanted to be pushed out of my comfort zone; be challenged as well as inspired. I knew if I volunteered abroad, I would discover aspects of myself that I never knew existed, whether they be strengths or weaknesses. And of course, I wanted to help in whatever capacity I could. So when I found my window of opportunity, I leaped. If you find yours, you should too!

What surprised you?
So many things, but I’ll talk about my favorite one. Before arriving, I was told that I would be living in a volunteer house. The idea of living with a bunch of other volunteers was definitely exciting, but the experience was far more rewarding than I had expected. The house was not just any house. It was a family who did everything they could to make it a home.  I hardly ever felt like I was away from home, and that was a feeling I had never expected. I can’t thank everyone enough for their love. Especially during the holidays, it really meant a lot.

Tell me about somebody you met who impressed you?
It would be hard to choose one person because I was truly impressed by so many people I worked with. To begin with, the local team was inspirational. Eric, the local team leader and his entire team, are visionaries, and will do anything for their community. Their energy is contagious and I hope that some day I can be as passionate about my work as they are. Freeman, who coordinated our volunteer project, guided me all the way and yet, gave me the freedom to be creative with my work. He was extremely encouraging as well, a quality that made me want to work harder every day.

I was also really inspired by all the volunteers I worked with. There is something amazing about sharing your time with a group of individuals from different parts of the world, all in the same place for the same reasons as you. Particularly, Jen, my project partner, she shared my excitement and displayed work ethic that was truly admirable.  Kafiya, probably the happiest girl I have ever met. Always smiling and ready to take on each day as it comes. Elana, she inspired me to think independently and take initiative. And finally Brianne, who taught me to be open minded and fearless!

On a lighter note, I was extremely impressed by how well everyone dances! If you want some dance lessons, please go to Ghana!

What was the funniest moment?
My fondest memories come from some of my interactions with the local people I worked with as part of my public health project. We were conducting interviews with villagers on their knowledge of reproductive health issues and quite honestly, some of the participants I spoke to were extremely entertaining. Freeman always taught us to conduct interviews as conversations rather than question and answer sessions, a piece of advice that gave us the opportunity to really get to know the people we were speaking to. During my interviews I was challenged and humored by participants of all kinds; the brutally honest, the shamelessly ignorant, the overly diplomatic and of course the ones who would respectfully decline to answer questions that were key to our survey. In summary, I had some extremely enlightening conversations; I learned to talk about serious issues as well as have a good laugh with people I had met only a few minutes ago.

Oh, and there was my roommate Brianne, another UBELONG volunteer. Probably one of the funniest girls I have ever met. She taught me to be cheerful and happy at 6am in the morning –let’s just say I am not a morning person.


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Volunteer Interview: Ryan, a Harvard student, makes a difference in Vietnam

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Ryan volunteered for 2 months in HCMC, Vietnam at the caring for disabled children project.

UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Ryan Huang
Age: 19
Nationality: United States
University: Harvard University
Languages spoken: English, Mandarin (advanced), Spanish (intermediate)
Past travel experience: Avid traveler
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for disabled children in HCMC, Vietnam
Duration: 8 weeks
Start month: June 2013
Claim to fame: A young man of many talents, graduating in neurobiology and studying piano since early childhood.

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG volunteer?
I decided to volunteer with UBELONG because I was looking to immerse myself in a completely different world. College is the time to learn and experience as much as possible, and what better way to do so than staying in a foreign country? My goal wasn’t to save the world, but rather, to experience international issues firsthand so that I returned a better person. In the process, I would try to make a difference, no matter how small, to someone’s life. UBELONG seemed to me the best organization to volunteer with. By working with local organizations to coordinate volunteer efforts, UBELONG ensures greatest amount of cultural exchange between volunteers and locals.

What was your impact on your project?
Originally, my project was to care for disabled orphans, many of whom were affected by Agent Orange. After the first week, though, I began taking on other jobs, such as teaching English at elementary and vocational schools. Eventually, I even got to design my own two-week music curriculum for an elementary school. Though initially shocked by the living conditions of the orphans, I soon grew comfortable working in the peaceful pagoda where the orphans lived. I know that many of these children will not live past their teenage years, but happiness is in the moment, and I’m thankful for all the piggy-rides I gave them, all the quiet walks we took, and all the laughter we shared.

I had one particularly memorable experience with a blind orphan who loved music. I discovered this when I saw him tapping spoons, toys, and whatever else against the wall to experience the different sounds that each object produced. I took him aside one day and started clapping rhythms in front of him. Soon, he imitated those rhythms and created his own improvisations, leading to a musical conversation consisting of hand clapping and knee patting. He loved to sing and I would often catch him humming melodies to himself. I’m so grateful to have interacted with him; it’s an experience I will never forget.

Another project I had was teaching English at an elementary school and a vocational school. One day, a teacher at the vocational school asked me to just sit down and have a conversation in English with the students. What started as a routine discussion of daily activities soon turned quite serious. The students, who were aged 17- 24 years old, asked about depictions of sexuality in American television and media versus the relatively conservative standards of the Vietnamese. Next, we talked about Vietnamese politics and international image; I discovered that many did not view too highly of their country and that some had an unrealistically positive view of the West. Lastly, we dove into a difficult discussion on racial stereotypes. I’m not sure how many opportunities these students had to discuss these issues so I was glad to stage a venue for lively conversation.

Though I had never planned on teaching music, the program director in Vietnam noticed that I played an instrument and insisted that I teach music to the elementary school children. Over the course of a couple days, I planned out a curriculum for the kids, ranging from rhythm games to group singing to identification of musical instruments through visual and audio cues. However, I soon had to change the curriculum as I realized that the kids had absolutely no experience with music. They were enthralled by simply pushing random keys on an electric keyboard. I had to constantly re-adjust my course and I’m not sure I succeeded in teaching the students much. However, I’m glad I exposed them to the basic ideas behind music. In the process, I even learned a few Vietnamese songs and games.

What advice would you tell a future volunteer?
It’s possible to teach a wide variety of subjects without knowing any of the native language! All you need is a smile, a sense of humor, some creativity, and lots of patience.

Don’t give up early! You may experience severe culture shock (and indigestion) in the first week, but it’s worth it. The longer you stay, the more idiosyncrasies you discover about a culture and the stronger the bonds you form with international and local volunteers.

Smile. A lot. It helps smooth all interactions.

Hang out with the local volunteers- they often have surprising viewpoints and are dying to know more about life in your country. They’ll also show you the best places to eat and coolest places to see, directing you away from tourist traps and unsafe areas.

Tell me about somebody you met who impressed you?
Ms. Nga Tran was a fellow teacher I worked with at the elementary school. She taught me many games to play with the children to help memorize English vocabulary. She was patient with me when I had trouble communicating to the kids, often translating everything I said. She taught me new Vietnamese words when the opportunity arose. When the time came around to teach music, she had the power to coordinate fifty children in one classroom effectively and efficiently. Unlike so many other teachers in Vietnam, she never raised her voice to discipline children. Rather, through a combination of humor and quiet reprimand, she corrected her students’ behavior. In other words, she was a first-rate teacher and role model for the kids.

What did you learn about yourself in Vietnam?
I learned that I enjoy seeking new sights, smells, and sounds. Though I grew up in the quiet suburbs of Ohio, I eventually learned to love the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. I loved the energy of the country. I enjoyed adventuring into each district as well as outside of the city.

I also learned how important it is to laugh and smile. Through constant language barriers, I discovered that humor and spontaneity were often the best channels for teaching and learning. And, even if I couldn’t understand locals sometimes, at least we could both laugh about it and shake hands at the end.

I loved my experience in Vietnam and I’ll never forget it. Thank you UBELONG for giving me this wonderful opportunity.


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Volunteer Interview: Shannon, a passionate young professional, makes an impact in Cusco, Peru

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Shannon volunteered for 12 weeks at the Teaching project in Cusco, Peru.

UBELONG Snapshot

Name: Shannon Ward
Age: 25
Nationality: USA
University: Columbia University
Languages spoken: English, Spanish, and Portuguese
Past travel experience: Avid traveler
Volunteer Abroad program: Elementary School Teaching in Cusco, Peru
Duration: 12 weeks
Start month: October 2013
Claim to fame: Served as a mentor for underserved high-school students

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG volunteer?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the languages, music, and cultural diversity of South America. When a close friend (and former UBELONGer) told me about her amazing experience in Cambodia, I immediately researched UBELONG’s volunteer projects in South America. I was seeking an experience that would provide me with opportunities to delve into the culture of a particular region, improve my Spanish language skills, and make a positive impact. After reading more about UBELONG’s mission, I felt that it would be a perfect match for me. Additionally, as I’d been volunteering in the U.S. since I was a teenager, I thought it would be a great opportunity to combine my desire to travel with my commitment to community service.

What was your impact on your project?
I spent 12 weeks as an English Instructor and Teaching Assistant. The majority of my time was spent assisting an instructor in her Communication classes for 6th graders. In these classes, we focused on Spanish grammar and reading comprehension. I loved assisting with these classes each day. In order to come to class prepared, I reviewed Spanish grammar at home and completed the same homework assignments we had given to the kids. Through helping out with these classes, I improved my own Spanish skills. Also, since I worked with the same kids everyday, I had a much better understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles when it was time to teach them during my English class. During my weekly hour-long English class, I taught basic grammar and vocabulary. Since they were an energetic group, I reinforced concepts through games like Bingo and Simon Says.

For the last day of class, I had planned to say goodbye to all the kids and to express how much I would miss them. However, they surprised me. One by one, they stood up and told me how much they had learned in my classes throughout the semester and how grateful they were to me. I remember feeling very overwhelmed and humbled by their comments, but mostly happy that they were so proud of what they had learned.

What were your major challenges?
While I had some previous experience as an ESL tutor for adults, the project was initially quite challenging as it was my first time managing an entire classroom of children. As they were very energetic and talkative, keeping them engaged during class was a challenge during the first couple of weeks. Eventually, I began incorporating games and songs into the lesson plans and noticed that they were much more attentive.

What was the funniest moment?
One day at the school, another volunteer, who was working as a physical education instructor, asked me to help him explain the objective of a game to his students. While I typically didn’t have any trouble communicating in Spanish, for some reason, I drew a blank and couldn’t remember several key words I needed to properly explain the game so I resorted to running around the field and trying to physically demonstrate what they needed to do. The kids were running behind me laughing, but still trying to figure out the game. I’m sure it looked pretty ridiculous.


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Volunteer Interview: Jenn, a caring and bright professional from California, volunteers in Cusco, Peru

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Jann, with one of the children at the after-school centered she volunteered at.

UBELONG Snapshot:
Name: Jennifer Beening
Age: 24
Nationality: USA
University: University of Illinois Chicago
Languages spoken: English and Spanish
Past travel experience: Avid traveler
Volunteer Abroad program: Elementary School Teaching in Cusco, Peru
Duration: 6 weeks
Start month: October 2013
Claim to fame: Jeen started a fundraising campaign before heading out to Cusco. With the funds raised, she was able to buy a projector which is now used for education and entertainment.

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG volunteer?
For a few years before taking the plunge, I had dreamt of traveling with a purpose. For me, becoming a small piece of something positive in the world has always been my inspiration. But when I joined professionals in the social media industry, I soon realized that the pressures of an office environment and day-to-day routine didn’t coincide with my passions. I knew I needed to make a change to follow my interests, so I started to seriously consider volunteering abroad.

I decided on UBELONG after researching organizations and briefly talking to people who’ve traveled abroad volunteering or teaching. I really admired UBLEONG’s mission and flexibility of project options. It’s was nice to tailor my project to my interests and relevant experience (or lack thereof).

What was your impact on your project?
I spent 4-weeks assisting at an after-school center located on the outskirts of Cuzco called Club C.O.R.A.S.O.N. Every week we planned activities for English lessons, Bible study and events that related to a certain theme. A majority of my time was spent playing volleyball, creating works of art and playing a variety of classic board games.

Prior to my arrival, I started a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for my project. I wanted to donate something that would have a lasting impact; something that was multifunctional and durable. I raised enough to buy a projector for the club to use as a new resource for education and entertainment.

UBELONG Volunteer Abroad Peru

Jenn sightseeing around Cusco, Peru.

What is your favorite memory?
The entire experience was unforgettable, and my brain is still trying to digest and understand it. But if I had to pick one memory, it was seeing the smiles and hearing the laughter of the kids during our first movie premiere using the projector.

Coincidentally enough, it was also my last day as a volunteer. Before my journey began, I knew it was difficult to make a lasting impact on the kids in just 4 weeks, but that night I got this feeling that my contribution was equally special.

I’m eternally grateful for all of the support from my family and friends. Without them, none of this would have been possible. I’ve learned that generosity begets generosity, and after telling other UBELONG volunteers about my successful fundraiser, they were inspired to do the same for their projects. Cheers!

What was the funniest moment?
Prior to my arrival, my knowledge of the Spanish language was basic at best. I liked to think that I could hold a conversation with a native, but I pretty much just recycled the same fifty words or so to say what I needed to say. The funniest moment, of course, happened when I was hanging out at the club and one of the kids asked me a question. I tried to respond in Spanish and wound up referring to a dirty and illogical word. Needless to say, the kids erupted in laughter and I didn’t find out what I had actually said until 4 weeks later. For those of you who don’t know, cocina in Spanish means kitchen.


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Volunteer Interview: Bea, a volunteer from Washington D.C., makes a difference in nutrition education in Ghana

UBELONG Volunteer Abroad Accra Ghana

Bea volunteered for 3 months at a nutrition center in Ghana.

UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Beatrice Matthews
Age: 20
Nationality: USA
University: University of Colorado, Boulder
Languages spoken: English, Spanish
Past travel experience: Advanced
Volunteer Abroad: Assisting at a nutrition center in Accra, Ghana
Duration: 3 months
Start month: June 2013
Claim to fame: Brought up in Europe, Bea is a true world traveler focused on making a difference. This Winter, she joins UBELONG again in Galapagos.

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG volunteer?
After changing my major to international affairs last year, I realized the world was in desperate need of a helping hand. It was at this time that I realized that I wanted to join the Peace Corps and devote my life to helping those who are constantly being challenged by the world. My first step was to test myself and see what I was capable of. I researched several different options, but UBELONG offered something many other organizations did not; they allowed us to truly push ourselves and not be bound by our comfort zone, but rather encouraged us to incorporate our skills to overcome certain problems (like distribution of limited foods and health resources).

UBELONG Volunteer Abroad Accra Ghana

Bea Matthews at the community where she served.

What was your impact on your project?
I volunteered primarily at a nutrition center based at a community of refugees, selecting the right candidates for a supplementary food program. However while there I filled in where needed which included teaching in the school, and working in the hospital. It was in these different sectors of the camp that I met some of the strongest and most amazing people who had overcome situations that seemed unimaginable.

One man in specific touched my heart. His name was Daniel and he never seemed to let a bump in the road distract him from his goal of uniting the community, which was clustered with several different refugee groups. After working closely with him for some time, Daniel took me through the community and introduced me to some of the most impoverished people in the community. After seeing starving children and families, I decided something more needed to be done and began to gather the resources that were available to me and take them back to the camp.

Some of these resources were other volunteers who were eager to lend me a helping hand. They jumped right on board and we began to gather all the medical supplies we could and take them back to the camp. We sent emails back to the States asking for anyone who was willing to donate to this cause, as two of my fellow volunteers were medical students. The results were astonishing and we were able to accumulate hundreds of dollars worth of medical supplies. With these supplies, we served hundreds of people that were without medical insurance and were not candidates for the supplementary feeding program.

Daniel inspired us to continue to help the community as he took us to a school that has zero funding and was filled with orphans. One girl, Beatrice, had an accident on a bike, which had cut open her knee and after four years and no medical attention, her leg was swollen to the point of immobility. We worked to clean her wounds and tried the best we could to nurse her back to health and rid her of any infections she may have had. For the principle of the school, we worked to assess why he was going blind and discovered that it was due to nutritional deficiencies.

At the end of my service trip, the other volunteers and myself gathered pounds of clothes, towels, toiletries, medical supplies, and linens and donated them to the community.

On more than one occasion, I can honestly say that we saved lives. In addition, I have worked very hard with family and friends to bring awareness of the refugee plight to anyone who might help. The program with UBELONG is saving lives.

What advice would you give a future volunteer?
After my experience in Ghana, coupled with the support and encouragement of my family and the University of Colorado, I plan to continue in the direction of travel and volunteerism.

Having an open mind and heart is crucial in forging friendships and relationships. These relationships will forge a path for future volunteers so it is always important to remember that you are representing more than yourself as an individual, but the organization as well your country. Volunteering is all about giving and it is always good to go into an experience like this with no expectations.

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