The first summer I spent working abroad, I arrived in Thailand with a camera and a dream: My goal was to work with a local organization to help refugees tell their stories through video and film.
But when I arrived in the small town where my fellow foreigners were stationed, I found my colleagues to be very removed from the reality on the ground. They seemed more interested in the updates they’d have for their Twitter feeds than to actually committing to the project. They weren’t familiar with the local community—and they weren’t ready to listen to locals either. Conversations focused on how much we’d party that night instead of on the project at hand—and that wasn’t the experience I was looking for. In a way, it was the ultimate reality check, and my desire to get away from the manufactured volunteering scene fueled my journey of discovery and my love for ethical travel.
Now, years later, I help students and friends plan their own trips abroad in an authentic and meaningful way. If you’re headed abroad this summer, be it for work, an internship, a fellowship, or just a new adventure, here’s a bit of advice to make the most out of your experience.
1. Learn the Language and Culture
Have you ever watched a foreign film without subtitles? Your interpretations of what’s happening could be right, but they could also be terribly off the mark. Without language or an understanding of the culture you are in, you’ll feel lost and your experiences will be tremendously limited.
So, before you go, do your reading (beyond the guidebook), learn some basic phrases (at the very least, so you can be polite), and talk to people who live there or who have been there before to learn as much as you can. Two phrases I always learn in the local language are “How do you say this?” (or “What is this called?”) and “In English, it is called...” This way, I can build my vocabulary and use the city as my classroom, while also fostering exchange with people who might want to improve their English as well.
You won’t ever learn everything there is to know about a place, but understanding the language and culture will open many more doors for you and help you experience the country in a more authentic way.
2. Get Comfortable With Being Out of Your Comfort Zone
Infrastructure, time, and expectations are different when you travel, and you might feel uncomfortable breaking free from your usual routine. But getting out of your comfort zone is what travel is all about! Your trip will fly by quickly, and you don’t want to come home realizing that all you did was eat Western food and hang out with Western people.
Try to break free from the expat bubble and try something new at least once a day—you will not only grow stronger, but your experience will be far richer because of it. Some of my best experiences have been the ones where I felt completely lost or where I took a chance (jumping on the back of a motorbike, journeying to a mountain waterfall, and eating clotted cow blood soup because there was nothing else served in the village, to name a few!). And as challenging as these experiences were—they made me a better traveler and strengthened my personal relationships in the long run.
3. Don’t Expect to Save the World
Every time I take a group to work or volunteer abroad, everyone has big ideas about what might happen once we’re there. On the plane, I often overhear statements like “I’m going to save the world,” and discussions about single-handedly reducing world poverty in three months.
Now, I am all for idealism, but focus and understanding of your abilities is important. On the ground, I often see many groups build a school and take pictures, captioning them with things like, “and now the village is changed forever.” And while it may seem life changing in the moment, there are long-term things to think about such as the sustainability of your project and its impact over time. (e.g., Will your sparkling library be turned into a chicken coop in the next few months because it’s more practical for the community?)
On the other hand, you might be partnering with an organization that is doing amazing, high impact work on the ground. Even so, you should focus on learning as much as you can, instead of trying to change too much. Remember, three months may seem like a long time, but it flies by fast—you will just begin to engage with the complexity of the issues you're working on before you have to go home again. No, you won’t save the world, but you will have made an impact on your personal development, the people you meet, and your community when you get back.
If you feel like you want to work more with the cause or issue, you can find ways to return and be on the ground for a longer period of time, or explore how you might be able to work on behalf of your project from your home base.
4. Have Your Exit and Return Strategy
You are going to come back from your trip with strong insight, powerful stories, and an overall amazing experience. And at first, your return might be a bit bumpy; not everyone is going to want to hear about your life over the summer or constant comparisons to the country you have been in, and your friends may have had very different experiences in their cubicles or at their internships.
Still, it is important to keep your network strong while you are abroad (try sending postcards—real ones—people still love them) to ease the transition when you get back. Use What’s App, Postagram, or an email newsletter so you can keep everyone up to speed about the cool things happening and avoid completely overwhelming them with your experience when you get back.
Similarly, consider whether you want to keep the connections you made abroad going even after you return. A lot of times, upon leaving your host country, it’s easy to make promises that you may not be able to keep. You should make sure to have a strategic plan in place if you do want to stay connected: It could be as simple as email or the occasional handwritten card, or it could be a Skype call or Google hangout every so often. But the fact is, your international friends will get back to their lives and so will you—and until you go back or cross paths again, you may feel just as connected through the occasional Facebook message.
I keep these things in mind as I prepare for a new journey through my homeland of Poland and a return back to Thailand—I know I have to stay rooted in reality after the honeymoon and euphoria period of travel. But I’m excited to hit the road and explore, knowing that I’m sure to make mistakes and learn even more along the way.
Get out there and have an amazing summer abroad, and “keep it real” with flexible goals and an open mind. You'll the summer experience of a lifetime.
Want to work abroad? Take a look at these inspiring organizations.
TopicsTravel , Travel Mirror by Natalie Jesionka , Working Abroad , Syndication , Career Advice , Living Abroad
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author