When people find out that I am not just going to Cambodia, but will be volunteer teaching and working at an NGO, things go wild. I am swarmed with questions and find myself in a state of constant defense and explanation of my decision.
Why are you volunteering? Are you getting paid? Can’t you get paid to teach English abroad, why didn’t you do that? Why do you have to do all that in another country instead of working in the United States?
It is then I realize that while I talk about my upcoming move with excitement and describe it as a “game changer” for me, I rarely explain why I chose to volunteer specifically. I have spoken loads about why I discovered I needed to go and do something else with my life (read about that here and here if you, for whatever reason, do not already know), but not about why I am doing that with volunteering opposed to something else.
When it became clearer to me that going abroad and getting a chance to use my degree and simply follow my heart, I looked into many different programs. I considered doing a working holiday visa in Ireland, joining the peace corps, and or getting my TEFL and teaching english while getting paid for a year in either Czech Republic or Spain.
However, at the time, the thought about locking myself in a year, or two, long contract felt impractical and stressful. I worried about what felt like putting my “adult life” on hold for a year while I traveled and explored my passions abroad. Also, I felt torn between my desire to work my way around the world permanently, but also my hopes of getting a chance to try creating a life with my boyfriend and seeing where that might lead.
After taking into account those aspects, I decided it would be best to do something slightly more short term, and nothing binding. Applying to teach English in a school where I would need to be TEFL certified and then get paid, meant namely year long contracts; so that idea faded for the time being. Peace corps meant a two year commitment, and so it was also out at this moment in time. For a long time I flirted with the idea of moving to Ireland for a few months and working until summer came and then coming back to start my life, but after countless pro and con lists, I realized this was not the way to really give myself the feeling of purpose and fulfillment that I so desperately needed a the time.
Then the idea of volunteering abroad came around. It was my mom who suggested it to me, reminding me of how inspired, rejuvenated, and confident I was after I completed my first stint abroad in El Salvador when I was 16. That was only two weeks, but it changed me permanently. She helped me remember the reasons I wanted to work in International Relations: to help people and make a difference on a global scale.
Everything started to instantly click in my mind. Those who know me will know that I rarely make instant decisions. It takes me hours worth of obsessive research, meticulous planning and contemplation in order to commit to an idea. However in this instance, I knew my mom was right, and that this was what I needed to do.
Slowly everything fell into place. I found that volunteering could be more flexible, and I had more control in the amount of time I wanted to be gone; no binding contracts that would make me uneasy. It was also more affordable, in that I found a reputable organization with low program costs, which included my accomodation and food. Moreover, in choosing to volunteer, I was able to find projects that would allow me to try out the work I thought I wanted to do in my life. I could be a teacher, work at an NGO, and be a world traveller, all in one go. I did not have to sacrifice or make compromises, everything lined up.
Most importantly, I felt like through volunteering, I could make a difference and be giving back. Does that make my decision to volunteer slightly selfish? Maybe. I wanted to go and experience a transformation that I know I needed to be halfway across the world to enjoy. But, I also know that despite all the critics, all the nay sayers and skeptics of the effectiveness of volunteering abroad; that it does make a difference and helps in some way. Sure the system is not perfect, but the fact that there are people simply willing to go and want to help proves our world is not entirely selfish or corrupt or materialistic, or whatever it is claimed to be. And I want to be, and know that I am meant to be, part of the movement of people changing the world one project at a time, one act of kindness at a time.
Sure, I could volunteer in the United States. Even though it is a developed nation, it has its own problems, its own people in desperate need of help and assistance. There are many admirable and dedicated people who work towards that cause. But that isn’t where my heart lies. My heart, my passion, has always been drawn to the international scale, to the global problems, to helping people in far off lands that I have never met. Perhaps it is because of my multicultural heritage, perhaps it is because I am a gypsy at heart; who really knows. But I do know that I must be true to my heart. After following steps of responsible volunteering, there is no right or wrong way to help: whether you want to help domestic or international, girls or boys, the young or the old; it does not matter. What matters is simply that you help, and help out where your heart lies. Because the truth is, there are already so many projects, so many initiatives working towards thousands of different ways to “fix the world.” So put your efforts where you feel most passionate, because that is where you will be able to do the most good.
In short: I chose to volunteer, and volunteer abroad, and volunteer abroad in Cambodia, because after everything else came down, that is where my heart was, and where I felt I could do the most good. I am doing something that makes me feel like I am living the life I was born to live. And I urge you, dear reader, to find something that makes you feel the same.