Tips for future volunteers
Returned volunteers or volunteers who are currently working with FAO projects give the following advice based on their hands-on experience with local communities.
The best tip I could give to a prospective volunteer is to make integrating with the people you work with or live with your first priority. Many of the volunteers I have worked with try to do too much upon arrival at their post. This often ends up with both the volunteer and host country national frustrated and confused about the other's motives. It is crucial to earn the respect of the people around you before you begin any kind of project. Participate in as many community functions as possible, showing them you understand their culture and way of life and that you respect it, and at the same time try to teach them about your culture and way of life. You will be surprised at how many stereotypes you will have to break. Most of the knowledge that people in the developing countries have of the western world is what they have picked up from our pop culture; be it movies or music. Show them who you really are and what you are all about, and they will be more inclined to listen to what you have say. But remember this process takes time, most often months.
Do not be afraid to make mistakes. Embrace the culture - only in learning the culture do volunteers become an asset. It is also important to fully understand the goals of a project - what a volunteer may think seems illogical or irrational, could be the ideal solution when considering the culture. It is an amazing experience, at times as rewarding as it is challenging, but worth every moment.
Don’t have too many expectations, each experience and job is different. The Peace Corps experience helps you to adjust to different situations. Even with some previous information it may not always be what you expect.
The reasons I decided to join the Peace Corps were partially selfish: I wanted to experience living somewhere new. Yet I think that that attitude helped me adjust and adapt more than if I had gone “to save the world”. If you go to help others, you may have a difficult time when you discover that your role can be limited. I know many Peace Corps volunteers who struggled to revaluate their initial intent. I would advise all those thinking of joining the Peace Corps to make sure you know what you want to get out of it, as well as what you would like to bring to others.
Remember to be open-minded and flexible. Don’t expect it to be the same as where you came from. For an average American, who can have quite a limited geographical and cultural awareness, volunteering can be a way of seeing things through a totally different lens. It’s a shame that more people can’t experience it. We need exposure to other cultures and other ways of seeing the world. There is a whole different way of looking and thinking at things out there. Also, for Americans who may have a viable skill, but don’t have the opportunity of working abroad, the Peace Corps experience is tremendously rewarding and interesting. The downside is that you need to watch after your health as there are diseases such as malaria and others that you may be vulnerable to if you are not prudent and take care of yourself appropriately.
It’s best not to have too many expectations. Be open-minded, be flexible but also be careful. When I went to Honduras, the political situation was quite unstable so you had to be cautious about stating your political opinions. I would say that out of respect for the population and for safety reasons you should be wary of how you portray and present yourself.
To any future volunteers, I would say that each day can be a roller coaster of emotions, both in your personal and professional life. The biggest challenge for me has been to embrace those moments when I felt disheartened or frustrated and to recognize my choice to be over here and the potential of the programmes I am working with.
Learn the language. Expect to not understand what is going on and don’t expect others to change their habits any easier than you would change yours.
Be patient. Accept that its okay to say no and have limits on your cultural integration.
Don’t be too concerned about getting well defined jobs. The technical aspect is not so important. It’s about the human experience with local people, living a different culture from within. You can apply these experiences and lessons the rest of your life, and they help you to be a more understanding and responsible citizen of the world.
To learn about requirements for Peace Corps volunteers, please contact the Peace Corps directly.
Read about Peace Corps Volunteers experiences